FOUR BOOKS OF AN EPIC COMEDY
C. DESMOND GREAVES
with a Foreword by Anthony Cronin and
Introduction by Anthony Coughlan
Originally published in a printed edition of five hundred copies by Léirmheas in association with the Desmond Greaves Summer School, Dublin, 1999; ISBN 0-9518777-8-X. Some punctuation errors in the printed edition have been corrected in this electronic edition, 2021.
Foreword Anthony Cronin
Introduction Anthony Coughlan
A Choosing a name……………………………
B The excursion………………………………
D Miser Jim……………………………………
F The pebbles………………………………….
G The mountain……………………………….
H Uncle Tom……………………………………
J Methuselah goes………………………….
L Visit to the West…………………………
M Economic man…………………………….
N Return to the East…………………………
O Leaving school……………………………..
A Hunt the don………………………………..
C Philosophical discussion………………
D The spiritualists…………………………
E The don’s dinner…………………………
F Money from the city……………………
G Zoroastrian Dawn……………………….
H Attercliffe editor………………………..
I The Clutterbrooks………………………
J The mad party…………………………….
K The blackshirts………………………….
A Fenchester Ferret…………………….
B Journey to Wales …………………….
C Dr Black………………………………….
D Trial in the Rhondda…………………
E Dr Black on mental illness………..
F Career choices………………………….
G The Egyptian……………………………
H The party meeting……………………
I The Branton Codex……………………
A Sphinxy riddles……………………..
B Patti Sonnenschein…………………
C The Einstein meeting…………….
D The prostitutes …………………….
E Journey home…………………………
F Uncle Tom’s will…………………….
G MacParland’s story…………………
I London calling…………………………
Desmond Greaves was of a type rare in the world and getting rarer. He was a savant who did not hope for academic advancement, a politician who did not seek public office or public emolument, an intellectual who did not wish to dazzle but to persuade.
Such types are not necessarily without ambition and Greaves was, in the true sense of the word, a very ambitious man. He wanted results. He wanted to bring about far-reaching changes in society. He wanted very much for a long period of his life to illuminate the Northern Ireland situation for British public opinion and thus to facilitate British Government policies in that part of the world which would take account of the true facts of the situation. As Anthony Coughlan has shown in his memoir of Greaves, written before the recent political developments there, what he wanted was something like what we have now got. It is part of the tragedy of recent Irish history that it took so long.
Besides having high hopes and aims in these ways, it now appears that he was extraordinarily ambitious poetically as well; and that the two books of verse he published in his lifetime – with an almost forty-year interval between them – were not the end of the matter. Over a long period of time he had planned and was executing what he described as an epic comedy, for which an apt comparison in many respects, including the use of blank verse iambic pentameter, but particularly in terms of length, would be Wordsworth’s abandoned scheme for The Recluse.
Very few poets are ambitious enough even to conceive a project such as this. They prefer the degree of public note which the ongoing publication of short works can gain for them to the long period of oblivion and apparent inactivity which inevitably results from the attempt to bring a new work on this scale into existence. In this respect also Greaves was true to type. He was ambitious, in the best sense of the word; but he was not greedy for fame or notice or monetary reward.
It is an attitude which is deeply to be respected; but what of his actual achievement? In the first place it is highly readable, which, as praise, is not as dismissive as it may sound. Most poetic effusions, long or short, simply fail in readability. To be readable is certainly more than half the battle; and Greaves’s ability to be so is the more remarkable because in the part of the poem that he completed he is writing about growing-up, about childhood, adolescence and young manhood. Contrary to popular belief it is very, very difficult to describe these parts of one’s life with any originality, to give an account of them which is both arresting and interesting.
But Greaves had an interesting mind; and this is evident in the number of apercus he gives us which are both original and true. Thus, observing his nonconformist relatives at his uncle’s funeral – a very vivid episode which is extremely well managed – the hero remarks:
‘It seemed to be part of a general rule
Were ever acted upon.’
That neither resolute faith nor unbelief
In conversation with the hero, Patti’s father remarks that:
‘The thinking man wants quiet and comfort. Poetic man
Wants drama and excitement and glorifies war.’
Both of these observations are true, and the poem is scattered with others which also give evidence of a thoughtful and original mind.
Except in the case of very well established poets, few long works left uncompleted by the author’s death are ever very likely to see the light of day. Even in its uncompleted state, Elephants against Rome was certainly worth rescuing from oblivion; and its publication will add to Desmond Greaves’s many existing claims on our memory.
* * *
C.Desmond Greaves (1913-1988), historian and political activist, was born in Birkenhead, Merseyside, of Welsh and Irish background, graduated in science at Liverpool University, and worked in British industry as a research chemist. He took up radical journalism in the late 1940s and for four decades edited the Irish Democrat, the monthly newspaper of the Connolly Association, which circulated in the Irish community in Britain. His work during the 196Os played a significant part in interesting British Labour opinion in democratic reform in Northern Ireland and in encouraging the emergence of the civil rights movement there at the end of that decade. This made him well-known in House of Commons circles. He became a prominent historian, writing biographies of the Irish political leaders James Connolly and Liam Mellows, a study of the politics and art of the playwright Sean O’Casey, the official history of Ireland’s largest trade union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, and many other works. Greaves was a man of exceptional literary and scientific culture who wrote poetry all his life. Two volumes of his verse were published: By the Clock ‘Tis Day, (with Alan Morton, Thos. Knight and Co., London 1946) and Four Letter Verses and the Mountbatten Award, (Martin Brian and O’Keefe, London 1983). He had completed the first four books of Elephants against Rome at the time of his sudden death in 1988.
Elephants against Rome was originally sub-titled ‘an epic comedy in twelve books’. The four completed books constitute the first part of what would have been a lengthy poem in iambic pentameter – a verse novel in effect. They tell the story of the childhood and young manhood of Hannibal Colqhoun who, like the author, comes to political consciousness in Britain in the early 1930s, against the background of the rise of fascism on the continent. They leave him as a young man setting out to make his way in London, having decided to take a stand against political reaction, thereby, like the eponymous Carthaginian Hannibal Barca, seeking to bring ‘elephants against Rome’.
Classical epic concerns itself with the doings of a noble, royal or divine hero who represents human possibilities ordinary mortals cannot aspire to. ‘Every man his own hero is the epic of modern life,’ wrote Greaves in one of his workbooks for the poem. Modern man can reach heroic stature if he comes to appropriate consciousness and succeeds, like Hannibal Colqhoun, in ‘Disembowelling the paradox / Of which the world is made’ and acting accordingly. ‘You must adapt yourself to the universe before you can adapt to a political party,’ notes the author. Another workbook entry says that the poem is ‘about’ coming to terms with reality. A further one, on Book 4, says: ‘Truth attained and it is truth in action.’ In the course of showing Hannibal undergoing the vicissitudes of truth-seeking the reader is given original insights into a wide variety of topics – philosophy, science, business, art, religion, medicine, politics and love – mediated through a comic and satirical narrative. In Book 3 Desmond Greaves summarises his personal theory of art and aesthetics in the section on “Dr Black on mental illness”. In Book 4, the section “Sphinxy riddles” gives his basic view of life and how human beings should live.
The poem’s sub-title claims it as ‘epic comedy’. An author’s note says: ‘Classical epic as opera serieux; my epic as opera bouffe’. Greaves was conscious of literary parallels: his workbooks contain an analysis of Wordsworth’s long poems of fictionalised autobiography, The Prelude and The Excursion, and in his Table Talk he compared his own verse to that of Thomas Hood.
Hannibal Colqhoun is modelled partly on the author as a young man: born around the same time, although the hero’s birthplace is put in Northern Ireland raher than England; of Protestant background; reaching manhood in early 1930s Britain, and interested likewise in poetry and affairs. Black, his political mentor, seems to be partly based on the author’s friend Professor Alan Geoffrey Morton, the botanist, and partly on John Cornford, both of whom studied at Cambridge. A note indicates that in Book 7 Black was to be killed in Spain, as happened to Cornford, who was one of the most brilliant of the radical Cambridge students of the 1930s. The scholar Methuselah and the scientist Sonnenschein have some of the traits of the historian T.A.Jackson, with whom Greaves was friendly, and of the scientist Marcello Von Pirani, with whom Greaves worked in British industry. The setting for Book One is the North of Ireland, where the worldly-minded colporteur, Hannibal’s father, makes a living selling religious tracts, although his Protestantism does not stop him from peddling holy prints in the Catholic West to help raise the price of a new car. Book Two moves to ‘Fenchester’ – Cambridge – where Hannibal goes to university. The trial of Iorwerth Williams in Book Three, with policemen packing the public benches to keep out critical observers, refers to an incident in the Rhondda Valley which Greaves witnessed in the 1930s and mentions in Volume 4 of his Journal. Book Four moves the action to London, where took place the public meeting in support of refugees from Nazism that Einstein and Rutherford addressed in October 1933.
The action of the epic revolves around the Branton Codex, an ancient scroll containing what purported to be a contemporary protest by Jews against the crucifixion of the man Christians call Jesus, but the Jews called Joshua bar Abbas – Barabbas – whom the Codex indicated were one and the same person:
‘The Romans doubled them up and the ruse worked.
The invaders became the impartial tertium quid,
And the Jews were blamed for murdering their own.
Century after century it rolled on.
Whenever a pogrom required excusing
The cry went up, “The Jews crucified Christ.”’
An outline of how Greaves imagined the later development of the story may be gleaned from his workbooks for the poem. The background to the later books was to be the Italian invasion of Absyssinia, the Spanish Civil War, the advance of Hitler, the death of George V and World War 2. A note says: ‘the turning point: comprehension of the State’. Another indicates that Hannibal was to undergo a period of temptation. The Branton Codex was to be stolen. Patti Sonnenschein, who was to bear Hannibal a stillborn child, would disappear on a political mission to Nazi Germany and Hannibal’s attempt to trace her there was to fail. He was then to marry and have a son by his childhood friend Emer. Emer would take revenge on the memory of Patti by destroying Hannibal’s love poems when she came upon them after his death. But the son was to rescue some sonnets, to be incorporated in the poem’s text. The final books were to draw on the author’s experiences as a research chemist in Woolwich Arsenal during World War 2. The fascist industrialist Clutterbrook and the time-serving academic Attercliffe, whom we meet in Book Two, were to have war-time jobs at the Ministries of War and Information respectively and to play a part in the poem’s later action. We know how the author imagined the final fate of his hero: a note for the envisaged Book Twelve says, ‘Blows himself up trying to stop the atom bomb.’
Greaves wrote in one of his workbooks: ‘Claims for Epic: spans the “two cultures,” uses rhythms of ordinary speech; avoids undue stylization (à la Browning); portrays fine characters as well as shits; fundamentally leftist (à la Lucretius, Voltaire and Rolland); internationalist.’ It is a pity the author did not live to complete his work; but what was written surely justifies these claims and makes these four books an interesting and original contribution to English verse.
* * *
A Choosing a name
‘Let’s put a name on him,’ said the colporteur,
‘The wee pink shrimp, scuttled in snowy flounces.
I never thought we’d have one, but here he is.
Get busy while he’s quiet and we can think.’
His wife having been present at the birth
So to speak in a personal capacity,
Providing the immanent substance, the male world,
Pregnant with social responsibility,
Proffered Transcendent form as follows:
‘What better name than William Alexander,
After my father, a stalwart farming man
Of loyal lowland stock, that gave to the kirk
Handsomely, but wouldn’t owe an obolus
Even to the devil. No. He rendered Caesar,
As I in my way, my humble way, the Lord,
Homage in terms of business and made almost
A sacrament of commerce, that traffic
In baubles that can still serve graver things.
He was called William Balfour Alexander,
A good combination, and that’s to the point.
Sound names are title deeds to safe berths
And those three wouldn’t irk a Moderator,
Which in the course of time this one might be
And live a life for me as well as his own.
To me cloth, collar and stole take precedence
At all times and in all places
Over cap, gown, wig, prying stethoscope,
Bandoleer of whiskered barebones
With his sporran at his crutch, or Miser Jim.
So there he is, child of a travelling man
On whose deep faith God smiled, though to be sure
He never filled his pocket.’ His wife laughed.
‘It’s as well, Colqhoun, you never had a pulpit.
You’d stray from the gospel to sell fish off it.
But listen to me. I’m not cleaning the buttocks
Of simple Sandy. I don’t like the name.
I’d as soon have Jeroboam Jehosaphat.
I grant you, yes, he’s yours as well as mine,
But here’s the way of it.
You started him off; I finished him,
Something more lengthy, arduous and chancy.
You can claim credit for the opening gambit,
And, sure, the women enjoy it as much as the men,
It’s equal honours for unequal work.
We’ll each choose a name
And if we think he can stand the weight of it
We’ll add a third upon our common consent.’
‘That’s just what I’ve been saying all along.
There are hundreds of names to choose from. If
You won’t have Sandy, what’s the price of Hector,
A fighting name, but it won’t get him shot.
Or Rex, or Caesar? Talking of Emperors,
Constantine, not the Caernarfon upstart
But’ – and the colporteur’s voice grew solemn –
‘The one who lit a lantern to the world
On the bloodstained turrets of Byzantium.’
‘No turn-coats for me!’
‘Conversion is no treachery, God in his mercy
Seizes the coats of atheists and pagans
And turns them rightway out. Thus he saves sinners.
But mind another aspect, we mustn’t stray
Too far from the familiar. If we must
Be exorbitant, let us exorbitate
Within orbit, and at least there’s one thing certain,
No Timothy Pats or Michael Joseph’s here,
Dieting on cods’ heads, stinking mackerel,
Brose, drummock, potato skins or scat-the-beggar.
There’s such a thing as a rump steak nicely done.
Mind, I’m not trying to influence your choice.
I’m only making comments and suggestions.’
‘You might as well make mincemeat, Mr C.,
For my mind’s made up. The name is Hannibal.’
‘What? Prince of Carthage? That’s a queer choice.
They’ll call him cannibal when he goes to school
And randy balls at church, the little devils.
The choirmaster was telling me today
The most angelic-looking youngsters
Have the dirtiest minds. And yet – and yet –
It’s a name to be noticed; it is, so it is!
It has a hammering importunate quality.
Was anybody on your side called that?’
‘There was not. Among us tiny children knew
The deed not the name bespeaks the hero,
And it was Hannibal called off the war
Of words and brought elephants against Rome.’
That settled it.
He was Patrick William Hannibal Colqhoun,
‘And’, said his father, ‘a brave noisy brat
Who clenched his little fists the day he was born
And let out squawks as neat as a guinea-fowl’s egg.
He has the look of his Da, too, catch him sideways,
A saddening reminder of time past
And the olden days when I was a new pin.
But nothing, alas, can paint or burnish
The accumulated rust and tarnish
Of thirty years a-tramping for the Lord.’
B The excursion
Four years went by and now a sturdy scamp
With other wee boys was taken in pilotage
By a big girl of six who went to school.
She led them to the utmost edge of Eden,
Where snake-trees stood akimbo to warn away
Good children from the west when black and violet
Mountains cooped up the dying flames of chaos,
As the sun went down. For here was home
And there was emptiness. She had led them
Through forest, field and fen,
Crossing, like Charlemagne, hills and torrents
To a furzy pasture, and there she mounted
A tuft of purple moor-grass and proclaimed
Herself the sybil. ‘Here mushrooms grow,’ she told them,
‘Though it’s both high and cold. Will you ask why?
Well, horses have been here. You can hear them whinny
When the wind talks to itself in that stone wall.
But if you want to pick them you must come
Just after sunrise in your bare feet.’
‘Why’s that?’ asked Hannibal.
‘Because it’s the only thing
Would make young head-in-the air look at the ground.
They don’t want to be boiled or fried
So they make themselves hard to find.
And what’s more, when you think you see one,
Make sure it isn’t only a paddock-stool.
They’re slimy, and cold in a nasty way,
Not like ice-cream. That’s cold in a nice way.
And they’re mostly poisonous to eat
And many are poisonous to touch.’
Hannibal felt a trifle insecure,
Would she know what to do if wolves came?
She laughed afterwards at what got into her
When dumb-struck infancy learned of original sin,
As the grave little face turned to her.
‘Indeed’, she said in a most severe tone,
Inwardly radiant with mischief,
‘Some paddock-stools are poisonous to look at.’
‘What colour are they?’ asked Hannibal.
‘Useless to tell you,’ she replied with a shrug.
‘The moment you sight one you’re a dead boy.’
‘What is it like to be dead? My granny’s dead.’
‘From all I’m told it’s the world’s fiercest bore,
Just like an everlasting music lesson,
Far worse than school, for there’s no play-time,
And you can’t go home.’
Dusk fell. The snake-trees looked more menacing.
Lights appeared below. ‘We’ll go by the road,’
The guide declared, and fifteen minutes later
The intrepid adventurers were home.
To the elders of the tribe
She was a kitten of a thing,
Playful, impulsive, following laws
Self-formulated, yes, and self-observed,
And as she grew up, shrewd. She lived
In a thatched cottage over a raised beach.
Her father, once a deep-sea-faring man,
Scunnered, some said, with typhoons, water-spouts,
Mosquito bites, weary unwomaned waste
And getting sunk in the war with no pension,
Was now a farm-hand. And they were poor.
Newspapers served for table cloths.
People wondered why the child asked for them.
Dripping was carefully poured and hoarded
In stone jam jars. For an occasion stale
Ces were bought cheap at the confectioners,
And from the gas-works you could buy
A bucket of coke for a penny,
And they weren’t too grand to burn it.
Walking the strand she wasn’t a bit afraid
Of crabs, crawlies or forky-taily things
That sidled out of crannies in salt pools
When wrack bewigged the baldy rock pates
And smelt penitentially
Of dead dogs on long-suffering summer days.
The longest bladder would give a pop for her.
She could net dabs, rifle a lobster pot,
Handle a dinghy, build Lilliput’s palace
In damp sand, and locate magic shells,
Bards of the mollusc body-politic,
That would have given Genghis or Prester John
Live music of the unknown distant sea.
D Miser Jim
‘Come and see Miser Jim,’ she said one day.
‘He has seven cats, each one a different colour.
He calls them his spectroscope menagerie.
No. He’s not mingy, not to boys and girls.
He’ll give us apples off his big tree.
The cats won’t eat them. They are saucy creatures.
They catch sparrows but won’t touch magpies.
One of them got an eye picked out last May.’
Accordingly they went
And found a shaggy man with pointed beard
Of indeterminate colour, unaccountably
Bedizened in green-black serge and top hat,
Bought for Victoria’s diamond jubilee
By a young fellow anxious to cut a dash,
Now living in the corpse of his young body.
Where were the antique moleskins he would gather
Round his stiff shanks
Or the third-hand jacket from the Friday market?
‘I’ve been collecting rents,’ he told them.
‘This being quarter day I give the cats
A dram in their milk. Did you see anyone
Prowling? There’s a taxman’s tout around
With an ugly beastie.’ At that point Ginger
Scratched Smokey’s tail for a square inch of sunlight,
Dappled though it was by equinoctial leaves.
Whish! ‘Twas a Catherine wheel,
Nose to tail, nose to tail. Fur flew like fluff.
Miser Jim watched and commented, ‘They’re lively.
A drop of the hard stuff always perks them up.’
Scarcely was armed peace re-established
When a mongrel dog ran in, circled, sniffed,
Jumped on the master’s chair
And sat down confident of alms or tribute.
Backs were arched, savage hisses emitted
And claws displayed in almost human style.
Miser Jim, anxious to settle
To his own dram, struck the intrusive creature
A light blow on the neck, as much as to say,
‘Get down. You’re on my throne,’ whereon it turned,
Bared its fangs slowly and deliberately
And growled crescendo like a waking tiger.
Hannibal could hardly believe his eyes.
The threadbare dandy seized it by the throat,
Held on till it went limp, then took it,
Still by the throat to a pool in the stream
And said, ‘It can stay there. Requiescat
In Aqua. That’s the place for the lot of them.
‘Twill keep his master busy finding him.’
Hannibal asked his father,
‘Do poor dumb animals have immortal souls?’
‘Of course not.’ ‘So there’ll be no dogs in heaven,
Or cats, or chickens – no poached eggs for breakfast?’
‘Don’t be irreverent. There’s spiritual
Food as well as material. You know that.’
‘But was it murder when Miser Jim
Grabbed the dog by the throat and killed it?’
‘Of course not. You can’t murder animals.’
‘But its loss was the greater.’ ‘I suppose so.’
‘And his sin the less.’ ‘Pooh!’ said the colporteur,
‘Everything’s subordinate to God’s will,’
And he refused to take it any further.
Sometimes her father joined them on the strand
And one day he taught them
To scoon three wave-crests with a sliver-stone.
‘Try as you will you’ll never get a fourth.
Further out they’re not ripe enough.’ That day
A surly easterly sent spray flying
And dying in the wind; it salted hedges
And made one ill-protected turnip field
Fit only for beet. He laughed ironically,
‘Hannibal, my boy, meet her,
My divorced wife, the sea.
‘Twas a youth’s romance with a much older woman
And a professional widow.’ Breeze rumpled ebony
On rubicund over his sharp grey eyes.
‘Mind, when she likes, and there are times she does like,
She’s a mistress with a soft and scented bosom,
Pleasant to lie with when you’ve money
In your pocket and can pay her off.
In such moods she wouldn’t rock a currach.
Other times she’s like a demented cat
Spitting at the heavens, trying to put the stars out,
And if she could get level with the angels
She’d make crooked penguins of the lot of them.
Hence the apocalypse said with good reason,
“There shall be no more sea.” Heaven couldn’t hold it.
Today there’s only a lads’ pantomime.
Look at that row of guardsmen like kings of clubs
Stood at attention foaming at the mouth
While the undertow sucks blood from their biceps
And drops them flat on their face. They’re tired soldiers.
They’ve marched too far. But heavens, isn’t it human?
Each tries to get the better of the next
So they look up and down and get nowhere at all,
Though when it comes to it they can eat each other.
Go for a swim today and they’ll eat you.’
He spat at the turbid cold commotion
Between grey dunes and scowling headland,
‘Bad luck to it,’ he said, ‘There’ll be a wet summer.’
Hannibal liked MacParland, though he thought him
A shade sententious. Some misfortune
Moreover had bred a jocose bitterness
He sweated out of his system. But he spoke
As a man of forty to a man of twelve,
Making no more distinction
Then Hannibal accepted,
Talking about half-comprehended things
Vaguely heard of. He spoke about Lloyd George
Carson, and Major Cooper up the hill
Who took up arms against Parliament
And was made a judge, thrusting the law-abiding
Aside. He lunched at the Grand Hotel, and ordered
Porterhouse steaks he couldn’t eat for drinking,
Frequently fell asleep on the bench,
And gave a man six weeks for saying ‘Jesus’.
‘All this’, MacParland told him,
‘Betokens the ebb-tide of an age,
And soon everything will be at sea.’
Hannibal asked why sailors couldn’t swim.
‘They hope they’ll not have to. They would court bad luck
If they prepared for the impossible.’
‘But surely sailors wouldn’t get sea-sick?’
‘Not very often, though it’s known to happen.
A man gets used to being tossed about.
The world’s a boat, you learn to go with its motion.
Indeed, sickness is your least worry,
The problem is getting enough down
To have to bring up. An able seaman
Starting a three month voyage from Liverpool
Is given one sickly tin of condensed milk.
I’ll not say what it looks like;
Perhaps something a prophet buttered his bread with
In his dispute with a king. Greedy gob
Spoons it into his cup in fine style,
And when it’s finished drinks black sugary tea.
Would-be wise housekeeper saves it
For bugs, beetles, silver fish and the odd mouse.
It’s different of course if you happen to be a captain.
Your cabin’s panelled with walnut, teak and magney.
You don’t live on pemmican or hard hake.
It’s part of your contract to be a gentleman,
Eat well, and take the decisions that sink the ship.
You know, Hanny, we’re all John Thompsons’ bairns,
But we ain’t all God’s chillun.
I knew a man who fed his dog on lettuce,
A Hampshire man, McGuinness, a hunkered tailor.
He says, “Poor people has poor ways.”
Now there’s Miser Jim with seven cats
That live on frog-spawn and rats’ entrails.
They forage for themselves, except perhaps
On Sunday, saints’ days, and rent-collecting days,
When he gets scraps from his poor tenants’ tables.
Ach! The poor creatures. I’ll send some fish-heads over.
Wee Willie will bring them down to you.
“But have a wee dram yourself, now, Meester James.”
So sometimes rich men also have poor ways.’
Hannibal saw no reason in all this,
But, being young, enjoyed the glorious nonsense
The grown-up world scattered on all sides.
F The pebbles
Emer found pebbles the size of pigeons’ eggs
Inlaid with pink, grey-white and pastel blue,
To the derision of potters’ art.
‘Ha!’ said the seaman, ‘John Bull’s gallopers
Must have been active. Just imagine them
Dropping red paint into volcano holes
And saying to themselves, “When this is vomited
And litters the strand millions of years hence
The sea can murmur, “Rule Britannia.” ‘
For a moment Hannibal was serious.
‘Millions of years? But surely,
The world wasn’t created then?’
‘You mean the books weren’t written,’ said MacParland.
Nor was his father very interested
In the intricate way the strands of colour
Were fused and twisted. ‘There’s no gold in them.
Even if they were spewed out of volcanoes.
What twisted them? Ach! At a fair guess
Some might be twisted by God, others by the devil,
And it makes small difference now.’ As for MacParland,
He was a decent man in his own way,
Though he never had anything,
But too pernickety in sacred matters
And figured in a most peculiar court case
Not many years ago.
‘Hannibal,’ said the colporteur,
‘I wouldn’t see too much of him – or her.’
Indeed now that he was at a new school,
No longer learning rigmarole
But acquiring the articulateness
Of a gentleman, he saw Emer less anyway.
And she seemed happy enough to let him go.
After all, boys played soldiers, girls shop,
Whatever about a possible interconnection,
And she would be working soon. Moreover
His elders were now telling him whom to play with
As they sought to get on his wrist
Society’s first handcuffs, soft as the silk
Of maternity, tough as its ambition.
‘You’re a big boy now, so think of your career
And the great things your father wants of you.’
‘I can do my own wanting.’ ‘Don’t be conceited.’
‘Very well, then, I’ll not do.’ ‘Don’t be bold.
A boy of your age does what he is told.’
‘Then I’m not a big boy.’ ‘Oh, Yes, you are.’
‘According to you I’m not.’ ‘Don’t contradict.
Many are called but few are picked.’
‘I’ll pick for myself.’ ‘What absurd talk!
You’re headstrong, crass, and self-opinionated.’
At this point the young warrior retreated.
Gods of convention smiled and were placated.
G The mountain
Hannibal shouted to Lindsay Brown,
‘I’ll race you to the top of the mountain,’
And ran off at once with sand-shoes flashing
As he leapt from ledge to ledge, hauling, grabbing,
With Lindsay far behind. He breathed earth,
The animal odours of its shaggy pelt.
Sensuousness, heightened by heat and sweat,
Went into everything, took everything in
As he hurtled against gravity, scarcely panting.
Shapes, eccentricities of nature
Like pictures, momentarily passed,
Each with its brief comment:
Here, for an instant, an old world fashionplate,
A pink-belled sprig of heath before a cavern;
There, oozy black turf banks afforested
With matted heather, much to be avoided;
Sturdy bracken parklands,
Made for the shelter of mountain fleece,
Threaded with green highways
By follow-my-leader sheep; during a pause
When he sprawled on the green in vigorous rest,
Behold microcosmos, morose like palm plantations.
And grey-brown lichen funnels sounding
Toy trumpets for lilliputian war.
On, on and up! From scalp to dome, that place
In winter time a far-off lunar desert,
Now a sedge-lawn where club mosses
Poked glaucous horns like tabby’s ears, and drab moths
Fluttered about for a spell and then subsided.
Suddenly land fell away from him on all sides.
Earth bowed and humbly yielded up the sceptre
To the sovereign sky. An invisible herdsman
Drove lumbering clouds, dun sow-tits trailing,
Over ridges disfigured with huge rocks
That spoke by shape because their thunder tones
Were silenced centuries ago. Sparse world,
Elevating, sobering, threatening,
Though it was high it was an underworld.
The sky went up for ever. Nobody
Could climb to the top of it. Where man
Was interdicted death reigned
And you could see why everyone must die.
Thank God for Christ and for the resurrection.
Hannibal shivered and thought ‘Where’s Lindsay?’
And decided to go back down.
He found the weakling in the expected place,
A shepherd’s hut, pent-house below a cliff,
Stakes, canvas, tarpaulin, linoleum,
And treacly tea in tin cups,
Water running everywhere.
‘What I am doing today,’ the shepherd said,
‘My forebears did ten thousand years ago.
But step by step all that was fine in it
Is being filtered out. Even the sheep
Are not as human as they used to be.
Something is being bred out of them.
Yonder’s St Patrick’s country. In his day
A shepherd could be a priest, a priest a king,
A king a poet and such a glorious warrior.’
‘That’s all old stuff,’ said Lindsay,
Glancing at his creased trousers and polished shoes
Spattered here and there with a dab of mountain sludge,
‘Today you’d do far better as a salesman.’
‘Judas Iscariot’s trade,’ said Hannibal.
The shepherd shook with laughter and said ‘Fair play!’
And Lindsay chuckled, ‘Old Judas had a son
And his name was Judas too.’
As they went down Hannibal taunted,
‘I raced you.’ ‘No you didn’t. I wasn’t playing.’
‘You played as far as a mug of sour tea.’
‘And so did you.’ ‘Aye, but before that
I saw all kinds of things. It was grand.’
‘Did you see our house?’ ‘Pooh! I didn’t look
It wouldn’t have the size of a chicken hutch.
But I saw waves breaking on the shore of Scotland.’
‘Thought you did, more like, and much you made of it.
For you had to come down again in the end.’
H Uncle Tom
Sometimes on summer Sundays, after
A salad meal washed down with white wine,
The family would nonchalantly saunter
Down narrow winding, slate-ribbed lanes,
Tapestried with hawthorn, honeysuckle,
Or lily-white convolvulus, a devil
Of a weed. Here and there stood a brazier
Of crimson fuchsia or even, by a house,
The blue-berried flame-flower of Peru.
This was a penance preferably
Performed only under the bluest skies,
Visiting uncle Tom, drear misery-monger,
Blind lie-abed, permanently sick
Of an unknown disease, without symptoms
And therefore beyond cure. He had gone down,
It is true, in the plague after the slaughter,
Thought he would never get up, so didn’t.
Three sisters died in the nursing of him
With meat by day and sup at dead of night,
When his long cane rapped the ceiling for attention.
‘Such were my angels,’ he would blubber and sob,
‘They have their reward in heaven. Oh! Bless them!’
Through his window you could see
Dark breakers on a distant shore-line,
Blue, white and buff, fishing smacks, dinghies, trawlers,
And far off steam plodding on nobody’s business,
Slow as the sun
That lit the mountains of the sea-god’s isle.
Now not once was he known to complain
Of the loss of his sight. Nor did incipient
Deafness perturb him. If he could not hear
He saw to it that others could hear him
And he craved no music. Life was concentrated
In the one sense, and as for that, he swore
There was no taste left in the food of today,
So give him spicier and hotter curries
On which to march in gastronomic pilgrimage
From the airy Punjab to Trincomalee,
As, one by one, his sisters waited, wilted
And wasted, he fattened until one day
His bed collapsed, and there he had to lie
Mattrassed on the floor till Bill McKechnie,
The carpenter, put it all together again,
Reinforced it and got him into it.
When the last sister died, a surviving aunt,
Not that much older, indeed younger in zest,
Brought her own doctor to him, a young fellow
Freshly turned out, zealous and sceptical
With the ways of the mind in his mind’s eye.
Although he declared politely
Psychiatry was ‘bill-hooked’,
He showed scant patience with Tom Colqhoun
And told him flat, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.
If you get up you may regain your sight.
Your eyes give a reaction. With practice
You’ll get about again.’ The invalid,
Appalled at the prospect of recovery,
Rapidly developed an intense head-ache.
‘Tell me, doctor, the pressure is building up,
Could my head burst? Think how my sisters
Laundered these sheets.
I feel as if they were about to be spattered
With blood, grey matter, hair and bone.
Ugh! Oh! Ah!’ – and a long-drawn sigh
Well practised on the ears of the credulous
Indicated temporary relief.
The doctor said no more, wrote a prescription
For ammoniated tincture of quinine,
Harmless but nasty enough to seem beneficial,
Advised brandy ad lib and took his fee.
The older man returned and said of the youngster,
‘He’s learning fast,’ confirmed the prescription
And pocketed his fee,
But he warned his patient as he was leaving,
‘You could go before your Maker any moment,
But we’ll keep the devil at bay as long as we can.’
‘We should read the scriptures to him,’ said the colporteur,
‘We are all sinners.’ ‘Fiddlesticks,’ said the aunt,
‘It’s too late now. He has three women to roast for,
But not for a fourth.
No warming of the midnight brandy now.
I leave him the bottle. He can manage it.
No beaten-up eggs at half-past-three in the morning.
It’s bacon and cabbage at one, and as for heaven
It’s my belief that when you’re dead you’re dead.
I’ll take my cheques when I’m still here to cash them.
I learned that as a servant girl in Boston.’
The colporteur laughed. ‘Wait until you’re on your deathbed,
You’ll be wondering what sort of mood Peter is in
And asking Father John for a clean passport
To hustle you through the gates. Once inside,
As I trust you will be, you’ll be given a harp,
And if I’m there before you, as I fear I may,
For every wee twang I’ll give a rap on the drum.
We’ll make great music.’ Hannibal was surprised
At his father’s lively jocularity
But even more at the great aunt’s sharp retort,
‘Your timpani will be a poker and shovel,
For that’s the place, though I don’t believe in it,
For a pious huckster turning penny pieces
Out of theology – the study of nothing –
And faith, the Sunday runs for foolishness,
For Balfour Bruce that’s you!’ ‘Pish!’ said his mother,
‘Leave my man alone. For you, aunt Bridie,
Said, when you came back from America,
You wanted to be nearer Rome.
For all your atheistical protestations,
I think, if a cardinal asked you
To play Faith of our Fathers on a mouth-organ
You’d execute the turn as well as you could.’
‘Turn? Who’s talking? You live on a spit.’
But then what must she do but pour a dram,
And another dram of cognac for his father,
Make tea for his mother and put a dram in that,
Bring out potato cakes and soda bread,
Farm butter, macaroons, stem ginger
And several good portions of sherry trifle.
‘I’d like to know,’ she said, ‘what’s in his will.
A farm needs to be worked by a countryman.
I’ve searched everywhere but can’t find it.
I only want fair play for all of us.
I suppose you’ve no idea?’ ‘Of course not.’
‘Unfortunate. He’s a close cunning devil.
He’d leave it to the Salvation Army
For sheer spite.’ Hannibal heard this and asked
Himself, ‘What can you do with ould ones?’
On schooldays Hannibal sat next to Andrew
On a teak bench, while begowned dominies
With squeaky chalks and dusters under the oxter,
Handy as waiters’ napkins, served them
With food of cultural convenience,
Predigested, pelleted, packed
And suitable for children of non-gentlemen
Who sought a footing on the golden road.
There was a resident elocutionist
To hone accentual asperities
And teach countrymen not to say, ‘I seen.’
She, indeed, taught seniors ‘etiquette’
And one of her injunctions
Hannibal remembered many a year,
Namely, if a lady comes into a room
Never get up and offer her your seat;
Bring a fresh chair, one not calidified
By contact with a male posterior.
And then there was a tall fair man from Sweden,
For running, swimming and calisthenic jerks.
He drove a motor-car and said it would kill him,
But he had to live.
The headmaster was a believer in games.
His long experience of youth had taught him
That the strains and stresses of their spirit
Seldom trespassed above the occiput,
While the competitive element within it
Inculcated proper respect for success,
To wit, the money in a rich man’s pocket,
Or government with goodies in its gift.
For he undertook to train herdsmen of men,
Thinkers of authoritarian thoughts
Should thinking prove unavoidable.
After all it was character that counted
And excess thought was an infallible sign
Of Jews, Fenians and namby-pambies
Who brought him doctors’ notes
Excusing them from running or rough games.
These ultimately slunk ignominuously
Into social limbo. They did not ‘get on’.
The world was founded, one of the teachers said,
On ‘do ut des ‘ and if they didn’t ‘do’
You ‘dessn’t’, which was freely translated,
‘Take what you can and give back what you must,
But do it in the manner of a gentleman.’
Far from being an un-Christian principle,
This, said the history-master, was the foundation,
Masonry, pediment, transom and coping stone
Of the moral temple, the recognition
Of God in nature that had saved nations
And was what the ‘glorious revolution’ was about.
Entities were thus taught by non-entities,
One solitary spirit alone excepted.
The boys called him Methuselah,
Gaunt, disillusioned classicist in pince nez,
His short black beard threaded with tarnished silver,
A ‘sarky devil’ and a man for quotes,
Who kept quiet in his class without effort,
Though he never raised his voice. It used to be said
Each term he offered them his resignation
But stayed when told he was ‘too good to lose’.
You could imagine him on a pessimists’ razzle
Trundling round tombstones and gibbet-sites
On a moonless night, and greeting chilly dawn
With a deferred well washed down hot-pot supper,
Beer-bottles cooled in a sarcophagus,
Scotch drunk from plaster skulls. His favourite tag
Was ‘Not to be born were best. Call no man happy
Till he is dead.’ He had a grá for Horace
Linguistically but not for his politics
And gave his boys a slanted meaning
For carpe diem quam minimum credula postero,
Which was to serve the fair and let the foul
Come when it must. Most of the sons of men,
He said, went to their graves like cockroaches,
Unavailing of their brief peep
Though the window of consciousness
At the pyrotechnics of the universe,
Which however pointless still made a good show.
Methuselah raised the grisly banner of death
Only to traduce it. In another mood
He would roll round his tongue
Like rich red wine from Tuscany,
Carmagnoles of forgotten revolutions,
Far spendid things now totally meaningless
That nevertheless planted watermarks
In the paper history is printed on.
He was no Scot, but some pride prompted him
To clear his throat when he spoke of Calgac,
Who rallied the Picts below the Grampian mount
And threw its lie into the teeth of Rome.
And he didn’t believe Tacitus had his tongue in his cheek,
Peace-prating abortionist and wrecker.
Hannibal learned the grammar and felt the call.
‘If only the youth of today had something to fight for,
How grand life would be.’ But everything
Seemed settled. The only adventure
Was making money. ‘I like spending it,’
He thought, ‘But making it must be a bore.’
‘Ira facit poetam,’ Methuselah quoted.
‘I’ll be a poet,’ said Hannibal, although
He had no notion what to rage about.
But Andrew re-assured him there was plenty,
‘Everything in this bloody country is wrong.
You couldn’t change it in a hundred years,
Not if you wrote a thousand pomes a day.
My uncle had to pay fifty-four pounds
Because he earned it. If he got it free
Without opening his gob or doing a tap,
They couldn’t have taken a penny.
There’s no freedom. It’s all government
And they don’t want you to have anything,
But my da says there’ll be a revolution
And then they’ll all be sorry.’
On a spring morning revolution came
In its own egg-cup, quite casually,
As a housemaid might as part of her duties
Leave firewater on the side-board, gin in the press,
That proved a boon to some unbidden
Nocturnal guest. Methuselah quoted,
‘Even the gods cannot alter the past,’
Adding wry comment, ‘though journalists can.’
Hannibal’s hand shot up. ‘Excuse me, sir,
My father says that our God can do anything.’
Methuselah answered tartly,
‘I don’t know what you mean by anything,
But I’m teaching classics not theology’
And refused to answer ‘any more silly questions’.
By now Hannibal said little at home,
But this time told his father what had happened.
Flattered by unusual filial confidence
The colporteur said, ‘My boy, I’m proud of you.
It is never out of place
To witness for the Lord. Be certain,
Had he a mind to it omnipotent God
Could throw the whole caboosh into reverse,
Speed it backwards and crash it on the buffers
Of the first day, and start all over again.’
Hannibal hesitated. In the midst of faith
We are in doubt. ‘Wouldn’t that still be after?’
‘Our worldly minds think so. But time is tamed
By the hand that made it. But who is this man Cohen?
There’s the smack of a freethinker in his discourse,
That beard might be a Jew’s beard.
I’ll write to the head to find out what he’s teaching.’
Hannibal wished he had not spoken
And resolved never to speak again.
Andrew, adept at mischief, made a challenge.
‘Try it on Father John and watch it floor him,
He’ll soon come padding through the coney field
On the way to that wigwam where he throws the bones,
Swings thuribles of joss-sticks and God knows what
Other idolatries. Aha! You’re scared. I dare you!’
Scared or not, Hannibal did it, and the priest
Laughed merrily at the schoolboy’s quaint conundrum.
‘Indeed he can, he alters it every day.
He can’t keep his hands off it, nor the present either,
And that’s how he ripens the harvest.’
‘Shocking,’ said Andrew, ‘the levity of the man!
I don’t believe he cares if God can or can’t.
Though to tell the truth, just between you and me,
My da says it’s nonsense the whole lot of it
And wouldn’t net a shrimp. He fought at the Somme.
Nobody could turn that into Waterloo.’
But Hannibal had caught the echo
Of a new language
In which reality was one.
‘I think I know what he meant. The past
Does not exist and therefore can’t be altered
Except in the present. That’s what the present is.
It’s the past being altered. But surely to God
There’s something very funny about time.
Nothing can hold it. Just think of some poor devil
On a scaffold with one last minute to live.
Let him divide it into sixty seconds
And try to live each one of them separately.
It goes mercilessly on and then he’s topped.
Do you know, Andy, I hardly think
I’d get much of a living from pome-writing,
Though I might have an occasional smack at it.
I’ll be a philosopher. I’m sixteen now.
That gives me fifty-four years. In that time
I might sort it out for them. But one thing’s certain,
The world is in bad need of being understood.’
J Methuselah goes
A brief vacation followed that Hannibal spent
At tennis, cycling, playing twentyfives
And marvelling at the pusillanimity
Of Lindsay Brown who spent the live-long day
Gazing at girls’ legs at the fun-fair,
But never spoke to one of them. For that time
Things transcendental could remain as they were.
But back on the benches there was alteration,
A new regime. Methuselah came no more;
Instead a bumbling paradigm merchant
Called Emerson who could dissect but not
Revivify his subject. On to the rostrum,
Since nobody had any explanation,
Leapt rumour with a bugle in his hand,
And told of altercations at the Board
In which Methuselah, by wont restrained,
Had called the chairman a ‘fatuous little bigot’
For wishing the ‘restored’ pronunciation
Barred from the school because of its ‘papist twang’.
‘For,’ said this gentleman, ‘in my young days
Scholars spoke their Latin in plain English
As the Romans would have done
Had they been up to date and known how.’
Methuselah was said to have told him
He would not teach hedge-boys to use toothpicks
And everyone was asking what he meant.
But the history teacher told them
That rumour was not a prince but a beggar,
A sort of intellectual Paul Jones
Feeding on the imagination of fools.
For they should ask themselves some simple questions.
Since when was Mr Cohen on the Board?
What man would dare to address its worthy chairman,
Colonel, Director, Justice of the Peace,
Apotheosis of good citzenship,
Like a ship’s cook in a galley shouting match?
And supposing Mr Cohen had the courage,
And possibly he had, though pedagogues
Were still servants and wore the Board’s livery,
Was he not known as a calm and cultured man
Who never raised his voice? Would he demean himself
By placing himself above authority?
Hannibal said nothing but hoped he would.
It would give the level of life a welcome lift.
But then there was another curious story
Of a rich cousin murdered in Germany,
Whither Methuselah had gone in haste
To execute revenge, or that failing,
Claim the estate. Hannibal asked Emerson
What he knew about his predecessor.
‘I’m just a locum. The man I’m standing in for
Is studying inscriptions in Palestine
Or Egypt, or some other place like that.
That’s all I know.’ ‘You mean the new incumbent?’
‘I didn’t ask. It was no gain to me.’
Andrew was jubilant. ‘Threefold conspiracy
To rob the worthy of their just credit!
He got the sack, because of your father’s letter,
And quite right too. It was not hard to spot
The taint of atheism in his scholarly talk,
Though on the other hand he might have been
A secret emissary of Rome.
My Da says they’re everywhere.’ A reputation
Thus thrust on him, Hannibal was embarrassed.
Some people talked in terms of loyal watchdogs,
But more of sneaky cats
And feeble belly-aching prigs
Who had to show off whatever the cost.
And after all there was precious little religion
In many of those who got their living by it,
Not only priests, but parsons and ministers.
Piety hadn’t served the Colqhouns too badly
And they had some shady family connections
People were too charitable to mention.
Months afterwards Hannibal discovered
His father had forgotten to write his letter.
But now he wrote a poem and here it is.
‘Some say it’s my fault a good man has gone
Though they can’t tell me what I should do.
I know I went home and told the old man
But with no further action in view.
‘Omnipotent Father! we chant and we sing
Though his writ doesn’t run in the past.
So what about mine? Can I do a damn thing
To put the man back in his post?
‘But whether the priest or the colporteur’s right
Or Andrew brings weightier reasons,
One thing seems clear in the darkness of night,
Even God has to march with the seasons.’
L Visit to the West
The colporteur bought himself a motor car,
Sure sign that the ‘recession’ was receding,
And this sinful secular world,
Chastened by foul weather and bad trade,
Was turning back to Christ.
He drove West and took Hannibal with him.
‘No, No, my dear,’ he told his protesting wife,
‘This is business. You wouldn’t enjoy it.
It won’t be a holiday. I’ll leave Hannibal
With old Kirkpatrick, the rusticated rector,
While I do my best with some old prints
I’m picking up on the way.
The trip will broaden this young fellow’s mind,
For he’ll soon be leaving school. I’d love to take you,
But you wouldn’t enjoy it.’
Centuries were peeled off as they crossed rivers
And entered the land of the old faith.
‘Hannibal,’ said his father,
‘There’s much below the surface in these people,
An earthy shrewdness, and perhaps more than a dash
Of peasant cunning and peasant avarice,
But a fine people. Look at their physique.
Children of poverty! Do they grow so big
In the cities? In my experience
I’ve known a young fellow in this part of the world
Crack sixteen eggs before breakfast,
Following, of course, hens that had strayed,
Swallow them like oysters and get a neck on him
Like that of a prize bull. But they won’t buy bibles.
‘Tis useless to bring them, and I’ll tell you why.
It all goes back to those unfortunate days
Of the famine age and before it. Bibles
Are mingled in their minds with Indian meal,
Scotch broth and the thirty-nine articles.
“Feed the hungry! Spread the gospel abroad!”
Do you know, Hannibal, two impeccable principles
Can make a disastrous marriage. And not to mix it
Further, remember this when we get home.
I have been selling prints, you get me, prints,
Prints I got cheap from a failed Belfast dealer,
Embellished to be sure with pious ornament
Not much in vogue at home. But after all
This car has to be paid for, and in the end
All Christendom is one. A salesman needs
To be adaptable. I often wondered
Whether to move to London and set up
An undenominational bookshop
Where all who sought God, along whatever trail,
Could buy provisions for their journey.
Let the whole world come in and be my neighbour,
Moslems, Hindoos, Copts, Buddhists, Chinamen,
All equally welcome. It’s a grand thought
And I think it would pay.’ He left Hannibal
With the clergyman, whose congregation
Was five souls, but remained open, he said,
For christenings, weddings, funerals and miracles.
With him he played chess and the church organ,
A ciphering embodiment of original sin.
They went fishing in the translucent waters
Of natural maritime aquaria
Sheltered by rocky islets
And an old sea-wall. Here limp jellyfish
Breathed in and out, anemones nestled,
And small flounders hung a moment, than darted
Among the stems and fronds of ribbon-wrack.
You could see the bottom twenty feet below.
On sunny days the rector would catch butterflies
In a voluminous muslin net.
The mild old gentleman dropped them
Into a ‘lulling bottle’, slaughtered
The harmless things with cyanide of potash
And crucified their corpses on a cork mat.
Hannibal questioned this trifling with nature,
But was given theological authority
That no souls were involved and therefore death
Was but a preservation of beauty
That, born to please, could now please on forever.
‘And sure,’ said the postman, ‘they’re only vermin,
The nearest thing they get to a vision of heaven
Is copulating on a pat of wet dung.
They’re maggots with wings, that’s all.’
Hannibal protested it seemed inhuman
To do what man does to the lesser world.
‘Adolescent fastidiousness,’ thought the pastor.
‘It would never enter his head, of course it wouldn’t,
That the beefsteak he took at lunch was a bullock’s arse.
But then he comes from sheep, not cattle, country
And sheep dung’s only fit for blue-bottles.
It dries too quickly.’
But he fed him on valley beef and mountain mutton,
Trout from the stream and whiting from the sea
And was generous with the port. His wife had the gift
Of making a guest feel like a head of state
And Hannibal’s opinion was solicited
On many a subject he had never heard of,
Still less thought about. These people were
The oldest he had ever lived with,
And while, like all the old, they had a sadness,
There was also a strange grey competence,
Not the world’s stamp, but the world’s impregnation.
You could not startle them, nor were they shocked.
In their company Hannibal felt
No longer hobbledehoy
And said to himself, ‘It is easier than I thought
To be a full-grown man, and I rather like it.’
While on all counts seemingly law-abiding
They dismissed government with unconcealed contempt,
Despising it as a holy man a dog,
And smiled derisively
At the transfiguration of idiots
By the miracle of appointment, by which
Incapacity was voted into capacity.
They pertinaciously refused to subscribe
To the common ruling that the law is just,
And if challenged answered simply
That any fool who looked could see for himself.
M Economic man
In a dell below a gaggle of scrawny oaks
That craned their necks to get out of the west wind
A farmer and three sons were building a cottage
And a serpent of white smoke arose
From the bee-hive kiln where they were burning lime
From turf and stone and turf and stone again.
They took sand from the river and sieved it,
Mixed in coarse gravel, then added
The steaming calx they slaked at the foot of the furnace,
And made a crude but serviceable cement.
‘There was a curious incident,’ said Kirkpatrick,
‘When they were cutting trenches for foundations.
One of the picks struck sparks
From exceptionally hard mother rock,
And the shovel showed, when it was bared,
The footprints of some prehistoric beastie
Whose bones are worn away to ocean dust.
They held a conference, and the three sons
Asked the father which would be worse luck,
To build on the fossils or cut them away.
It was decided to get rid of them.
They would take their luck with them, such as it was.
They could be dumped over the churchyard wall,
Without much detriment to the luck there,
Small enough indeed and at that heretical.
I found the fragments under that yew tree
And put them together again. Meanwhile
The builder piled in rubble, filling and mortaring,
Rifling the skeletons of old bohawns
And, when the walls were grown, wrestled with beams
Rough hewn from last year’s felling, cut to rough shape,
And flogged through copse, meadow and highway
Like rebellious mules. They strode marsh land
And gathered sturdy reeds to make a thatch
And apart from nails and knick-knacks
Bought only putty, paint, timber, glass,
Creosote and a bag of gypsum,
And at the end of it there was a dwelling.
‘They’ve finished,’ said the pastor, ‘and the fire
Is lit, and the lamp below the Sacred Heart.
The wife sits meekly sewing.
The four creators drink in Curran’s bar.
For my part I got some queer fossils
Out of it, sent them to Dublin and got back
A most appreciative acknowledgement,
So there it is. We watch and they work.
I wonder, are they nearer to God than we?’
‘They may well be,’ said Hannibal, ‘but during
These last few days I’ve been observing them
I didn’t see much praying on the job.’
‘Ach! There’s a wee gnat of scepticism
Gimletting the panelling of your head.
It must be the touch of Papism in your father.
It worried him at one time, but no longer.
But there’s no doubt without faith.’ ‘No, indeed,’
Said Hannibal, ‘And little faith without doubt!’
The rector laughed and there the matter rested.
The postman, whose wife had the general store,
And had a bar for thirsty customers
– Despite which she bought in factory rashers
Though she favoured home-cured fat and salt –
Spoke bravely up for economic man:
‘Building a house yourself was a bogman’s job.
As well abandon trains and carriages
And go back to the pack-horse.
Yes, there was plenty of ruins to be robbed,
Plentiful free rubble. But the principle
Was faulty, like picking dandelions
When you want soup because they’re plentiful.
They’re easy on the purse but light on the belly.
It’s worth earning a shilling to buy a few bones.
Had old MacLoughlin had a titter of wit
He’d have packed off those three strapping fellows
Years ago to the States. There their strength
Would earn him something. They’d be married now
With cars in their garages and a cocktail bar
In their houses, and he’d have grandchildren.
And if he really needed a new home
He could build it in style and make a job of it,
Hire a crack architect at a fat fee
For a quarter of the price of what they’ve eaten.
Even if they sent him nothing, he’d still save.
But I’ll tell you the trouble with this country.
We’re over-eaten, over-drunk, over-taxed,
Not easily over-cured to be sure,
But saturated with sickly sentiment
And we’ve got too much of most things barring money.”
The postman warmed to his theme.
‘You should come here in the late spring, Mr Colqhoun.
There’s a house every hundred yards, as you can see,
And there used to be twice as many.
Each house has a cart, each cart an ass
And another one takes both of them to the sea
To a place called “Craggan dilisc”,
After which for a fortnight
The lanes are paved, so it seems, with fool’s gold,
A slippery orange-coloured seaweed
Fallen off the carts – good fertiliser, mind,
But, in the name of heaven, the labour!
Now it gives pototoes a sound smack of salt
When they round up. But they’re all eaten at home.
They’d fetch a good price on the Glasgow market.
And cheap ones, just as nutritious, can be bought.
Indeed I’ve sacks of them. And this is business!
Let quality have quality; they can pay.
So let them pay and quantity will remain
With quantity, but they don’t understand.
It isn’t what you have that brings prosperity,
It’s what you don’t have. Sell, distribute, export
Whatever you have plenty of, get it away.
In England families on twelve-cow farms
Eat margarine and drink condensed milk.
Cobblers’ children, so I am informed,
Run barefoot the whole year round,
Tobacco growers never redden a pipe.
Look at that field,’ the postman carried on,
‘I’ll tell you about that very field before you.
The man who works it gathers up his spade
And starts from the top corner by the hawthorn.
As he works down, although she’s seventy-six,
His old mother follows him with a basket of seed,
And each day for three weeks they dig and set
And dig and set again. Ask him
What’s wrong with the world, he’ll tell you, “work, work, work”.
It has turned him into an elephant-footed cart-horse
To whom the greatest gift of God is sleep.
Now wait. When August comes
They’ve only enough to last them to July.
So they must buy, but then they have no money.
So the young fellow gets some work on the roads,
And there’s more digging.
Whenever the mother dies (God between us!)
He should sell up and head across the ocean,
Make money for himself, and leave behind
Capital that’s too small for him, but big enough
To turn enough into extra for somebody else,
Somebody with a livelier sense of business.
Should such a one wish to plough, and his land’s suitable
I can get nitrates, phosphates, concentrates,
In the name of heaven any other ‘ates’,
Bagged up in eight-stone lots. And then
Let the wrack cut itself or rot in the sea.’
Hannibal and the clergyman
Were unconvinced. The postman
Accepted a conciliatory whiskey, but went on,
Perhaps on the strength of it, ‘You lah-di-das
Think yourselves human benefactors.
You believe in the myth of the noble peasant.
And that means Paddy stays where your “forebears put him.”‘
He took a second sip and said, ‘I’ll give you
Another example. After potato-setting
Comes turf-cutting, also a long job,
With tots of five at it bringing cans of tea
For their elders labouring for nothing.
Now, look at it realistically,
If they had money, and went for that first,
I could supply best British house-coal
By the hundredweight delivered to the door.
I’ve paraffin at most competitive prices.
Though there’s not much competition here,
I never overcharge. But they won’t buy,
Though they’re able to get squeeze-boxes,
Flutes, fiddles, fol-di-rols and porter –
Not that I’d blame a man for taking a drink –
But they think life is given to be enjoyed
Not used, and so their pleasures enslave them.
This is a land of most conservative communism.
None for himself, and let the devil take all.’
‘You’ll dodge his horns,’ said Hannibal with a chuckle.
But the postman insisted,
‘Till we get rid of the bulk of the population
None of us left behind will have a brass farthing.’
‘Such talk is wicked,’ said the clergyman.
The postman laughed, thanked them and took his leave.
‘Wicked?’ said Hannibal, ‘Preposterous!
He can’t wait to flush out his friends and neighbours
To line his pockets with what they leave behind.
A desperate scoundrel!
Does he say this everywhere? Some dark night
Somebody with something is going to meet him on the road!’
‘Rather discern in him a misguided patriot
With a vision of what an Eden this land could be
To one man if he owned the whole of it!
He certainly said much more than he meant.
He’s fond of devilment, not a local man,
And very, very anxious to make his way,
And his wife’s as bad as himself, and she’s the boss.
Father Finnerty has already told him
To take it easy. But of course I say nothing.’
N Return to the East
The colporteur came back with a full wallet
And a bottle of whiskey for his old friend.
‘I sold the lot before I got to Ennis,
I’ll spend a few days here,
Fishing and fooling about,
And then we’ll go home. But, Hannibal,
Remember it was prints. They’re sold of course.
Nobody can see them but the purchasers.
But they were prints. I wouldn’t want your mother
To be deceived about them.’
The old clergyman winked at Hannibal,
And Hannibal, up to then the dutiful doubter,
Doubted no more and said no prayers at night.
After about a week they drove home
And the young man felt an unforseen nostalgia
As they crossed rivers, and came back through history,
Reading the map of time, but inescapably
Capsuled in his own time, whose product he was.
It struck his mind, there is no god but time,
Dominus mundi, the universal lord,
Maker of things visible and invisible,
Leader, destroyer and star of hope,
Did you but know what it was all about,
The ultimate material of the world.
Coming home? He was and he was leaving it,
The genetic home, the social womb
That nourished those who begot us –
Cheery houses, alive with midnight craic,
That time never touched even for the sake of labour.
He was even half surprised when his mother kissed him
And told him, ‘Hanny, I’m glad you’re back.’
Certainly his experiences
Had ‘broadened the young fellow’s mind.’
O Leaving school
There was no question,
Hannibal had done well at school.
His teachers, God help them,
As God helps all farmers,
Especially those who know so little
Of the soil they till or the nature of the crop,
Were reasonably pleased.
A trifle more respect for order,
Somewhat less critical probing
Into the life-style of the universe,
Might be becoming in early youth.
But one more figure for the prospectus
Must not be looked in the mouth.
Hannibal told his father, ‘I’ve a scholarship.
To read philosophy in Albion.’
‘The whore of the sciences!’ said the colporteur,
‘But an opportunity not to be missed.’
Emer and MacParland
Sent their congratulations,
‘A Fenchester student from our own townland!
Get what you can from them, for they had plenty
From us’ – and more along the same lines.
That Hannibal wrote a poem
About his success is not to be disputed,
But his eldest son
Sorting his papers many years afterwards
Thought this a maturer comment, and here it is.
‘Hail Hannibal Colqhoun,
Not born Barca;
You will see him soon,
Bicycle, gamp and parka,
College scarf, and locks
Disembowelling the paradox
Of which the world is made.’
A Hunt the don
Hannibal couldn’t wait
On the rumbling wagons of curriculum.
This first week-end of his apprenticeship,
Under a gold and purple canopy
October’s warm west wind
Wafted over the vaporous fens.
He went out hunting a knowledgeable teacher,
And, what’s more, found him, tweeded by pollards,
And fishing in a vassal of the Cam,
That tortuous snake-goddess
Of the sleepy hollow world,
To the secret meaning of whose ancient name
Only the foreigner seemed privy.
In this strange land without orography
He sought acclivities of the mind.
Athletic youth might scale
Up Jacob’s ladder of scholarly communion,
And the sabbath tintinnabulations
In every key of the gamut
Augured that this would be so,
For he was living in the promised land.
He learned of his prey in this manner:
Several young men with thousand-dollar voices,
Lost in voluminous bags and all but throttled
By multicoloured woollen scarves,
Learning he sought the key to the universe,
Recommended an approach to Attercliffe,
A dominie almost as youthful as themselves,
But of an intelligence only to be mentioned
With bated breath, who was hard to find at home,
But, once caught, eminently approachable
Though he couldn’t stand fools. He had said to a student
Who was tripped up by Zeno’s paradox
And tried to argue it out,
‘For God’s sake think, and show the world you can.’
Gruffer voices ventured the speculation
That now he was making headway in the world
He had pinned up in his stateroom a candy list
Of highly establishmentarian engagements,
Weatherglass of that promising career
For the sake of which he had left the Labour Party,
And now was fooling about with Social Credit.
But behold him – it was this very man –
Way-laid at watery cusp, no bridge, no ford,
No, not a stepping stone, and the one egress
Blocked by a youthful interlocutor
Intent on mental mischief.
Hannibal explained his business.
He wanted some puzzling questions cleared up,
After which he would be a quiet book-man.
‘You’re in a mighty hurry,’ said the don,
‘And if you want a tip
There’s no great advantage in clearing things up.
Once they’re cleared up there’s nothing to be done
And then what pays the rent? Still, ask away
Though I won’t promise to give you final answers.’
‘Tell me,’ said the questing spirit of youth,
‘What is this element called consciousness
Posited on all sides as the sole basis
On which things visible are founded,
That is yet phenomenally expressed
Only in discrete manifestations
In the minds of individuals often
Separated by miles of brute matter
And intermittently as they sleep or wake?
To take it further, why am I, “I”?
To put it another way, what makes me “me”?
Not of course that I’d choose
To be somebody else, even if I could
And I were very much the better for it.
Supposing some alternative spermatozoon
Had flagellated its rivals out of the way
And done a gannet-dive on mother egg,
Leaving my foiled progenitor redundant,
There would, I presume, be a Hannibal Colqhoun,
But would his consciousness be this of mine?
Some say the great prime mover in his wisdom,
At the crucial moment in ontogeny
Slots a spare soul into a clay receptor
And homo factus est. But others have it
We are all of us plucked from the bran tub,
Digits of statistical biology.
But in either case, how can the general
Be justified by the particular?’
‘Ah,’ said Attercliffe, somewhat reluctantly
Propping his rod, ‘a controversial question,
Bristling with non sequitors,
Alive with ignoratio elenchi.
The marine philosopher Piscatorius
Thought it insoluble.
It is the riddle of identity,
You’ll come to it later on in the course.’
‘A riddle indeed,’ responded Hannibal,
‘And with your kind endorsement, I’ll press on.
Grant uneventuated siblings
Leave of their long night.
What of the tribal fathers, roasting in hell
For things they did on each other years ago,
To the great recommendation of dumb animals?
If they hadn’t done them, what about me?
I wouldn’t be here, and every Christmas
Their shades go shrieking murder to the knife,
While adjuring their uninvolved descendants
To love ’em all. If consciousness is one
How can I be hijacked by history
When without past evil there is no “me”?
Can I tear up my passport to existence?’
‘If you do,’ said the don, ‘you’ll have to exist
Without one. Men have done it and survived.
But here you’ve broached another tangled subject.
In this, indeed, there are closely commingled
Parameters of ontology and value judgements,
Normative to a degree but also heuristic,
By implication at least, though in a nutshell
It is the riddle of entity.’ He took his rod
And cast once more in desultory fashion.
Hannibal felt himself half-dismissed
But couldn’t quite make Attercliffe out,
For he seemed neither serious nor joking,
So he persisted. ‘If who and what I am
Are both riddles, how do I decide
What I should do? Is that the riddle
Of conation?’ ‘It is,’ said the don,
‘But while I try to give you a brief answer
Don’t, for God’s sake, fandango on the bank.
Fishes are more timorous and fugitive
Than mermaids, and indeed at times they can
Seduce good family men from faithful spouses
Who don’t go to church.
But, to return, it is the riddle of policy,
Something, I tell you, solved in an instant
Without qualm or question by illustrious
Ministers of State in total ignorance
Of who, what, when, whither, whether or why.
You’ve no special disability. My good wife
Is, of course, an emancipated lady,
And her advice, vulgar but to the point
Freely bestowed on the Hamlets of this world,
And suiting the case as tonic suits gin,
Is “Follow your bollocks for that’s the way home.”
No! No! I didn’t mean it that way.
Don’t go. Have a lobster sandwich,
Hold on ten minutes and I’ll drive you in.’
Once in the car Attercliffe grew reflective.
‘There’s something in what you say. It’s hard to know
The results of one’s decisions. You can’t get off
The bus of history. If Aetius
Had heeded the groans of the Britons, I
Might have been a peasant in Schleswig-Holstein,
Indeed, as you say, if I were born at all.
How many million chances are against it?
C Philosophical discussion
‘Our generation,’ said nineteen year old
Monkhouse, the mathematician,
Sipping coffee in a Lyons tea-shop,
‘Is the first in history to march boldly
Forward to the focus of ultimate truth,
To the meaning that makes meaning of meaning
And reconciles everything with everything else
In the rationale of a mathematical God,
Which, let me tell you my conviction,
Justifies, and a thousand times justifies
Life after death, survival,
That mighty dream that man can live forever,
For if space is curved, why not time?’
Under pressure he made a half-admission,
‘I recognise with some who reiterate it
From Pascal, altars are often belied
In the common speech of piety. Faith
Is of the mind, but the belly believes
Or doubts as it fills or empties,
Pending the issue of proof. I say we have it.’
Black, scientist, senator of twenty-three,
Put in his motto with blunt clarity.
‘Whatever has a beginning has an end.
Don’t puzzle over what it feels like
To be dead. It doesn’t, and you know it
From umpty-dumpty million years’ experience.
I’ll give you the guts of man. Biologically
We are pill-porters, humping a bag of ballast
From the last generation to the next
And when it’s there we put it down,
Sit on our arse for a spell, then go to sleep.’
Hannibal was startled.
‘So that’s life seen through the eyes of science?’
‘The bones, though the flesh is palatable,
Much of it good eating when it’s fresh.
But there’s no such thing
As an everlasting box of chocolates.’
He pointed to inexplicable concords
That sweeten numerative harmony
With such ravishing juices as ooze
From the fulcrums of augmented sixths,
That heave mighty orchestras holus-bolus
Into the paradise of remote keys,
Three diaboli in mathematica,
Three tritones if you wish, e, i and pi,
Impossible to tune accurately,
Combine to sing a song of the angels
And prove mind manages the universe.
‘Yes,’ said Black, ‘all on a piece of paper.
You never got the universe to talk.
Admit it now, you’re prepared to ditch God
But resurrect him as a figurehead.
An oojah-religion, something ineffable
That is the essence of the something more ineffable,
All a harmonious whole, de-do, di-da.
Listen. Euclidean geometry
Derives from private property in land.
Arithmetic is from commerce and taxation,
Calculus from usury and profit.
The lady’s not a virgin but a whore!’
‘You speak of applied mathematics
Prostituted by corrupt applicators.
I speak of pure or inherent mathematics,
Measure of measure,
Hidden prescriber of all prescriptions,
Which, let me tell you, predetermine
The composition of your stinking brews
And what you will need to blow yourselves up.’
D The spiritualists
Monkhouse then promised to bring Hannibal
Among the spiritualist fraternity,
Not intellectual eagles, he conceded,
But rather minds in which
Too strenuous and prolonged cerebration
Had not cut the link with the unseen.
Hannibal long remembered his first attendance
At the godless, prayerless and unmusical church,
Its overscrubbed dinginess,
The hospital odours of its cat-pissed stairs,
Lit by a wavering batswing burner
Above the head where the bannister was broken,
Its shabbily dressed believers, half-believers,
Would-be believers, might-be-something-in-its,
Sheltered from the winter cold,
And the whitefaced recently bereaved
Hungry for the illusion that feeds faint hope.
The medium was Madam Eugenie Cordonia,
Daughter of Camberwell when her name was Smith,
Once a fair beauty, now a drudge in a bar,
Spirit-dispensing on her night off.
Once she’d a voice, and went to Italy
To study opera, only to be betrayed
By a quirky defect of aural memory.
She had no absolute pitch. She gravitated
Through operetta, vaudeville and cabaret
To parlez-vous in a honky-tonky bar
During the war, pulled pints for a time, later
Washed glasses, and some said her downfall
Was due to disappointment, others to drink.
But she was at pains
To maintain her professional name
And vestiges of a professional manner.
She painted mourners consoling pictures
Of loved ones ‘bathed in beautiful mauve light’
Patiently awaiting the day of reunion.
She gave them confidence, believe it or not,
In the homeliness of eternity.
On one occasion when the poor old girl
Sat shrivelled and uninspired,
Doing her best with polychromatic haloes,
And life and joy and truth and peace and love,
An unexpected help-mate heartened the faithful
To the notable augmentation of the laity.
He was stocky, sixty, bald and dressed neatly,
Though somewhat loudly for his age.
There was too much orange in his brown check.
Clearly he would not spurn public attention
Though for six weeks he had sat unnoticed.
This night he interrupted the syrup-session,
Sprung forward to the table
With animal cries, flushed face and eyes rolling,
Arms gesticulating and body jerking
As he tried to pronounce some strange schismatic spell,
Quivering from head to foot.
Black, who was present, whispered,
‘The classic symptoms of hysteria.’
Monkhouse replied, ‘He is possessed,
There’s your proof, but you won’t heed it.
Watch. His mouth works. The message is coming through.’
His voice, gruff as the throat of hell, rose suddenly
And cried, “Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.
Merciful God! The truth! Shot through the head!”
He struck his forehead, woke up as it seemed,
And went back quietly to his seat.
‘Ah!,’ said Madam, ‘This wonderful ism!
Why was I despondent? The waves! The stars!
The vibrant atoms of the universe
Scintillating in the ether! All night.
I have felt as if magnetism
Was being drained out of me, and stored
In a sooty storm-cloud, ready to burst
In hail and thunderbolts. And now we see it.
Friends on the other side
Chose this good gentleman to bring us witness,
And across the divide the reason comes to me,
He lost a son. We’ll close now.
I’m exhausted – jaded.
Most of that electricity came out of me.
Don’t forget the collection, brothers and sisters.’
Half mischievously Hannibal asked her
‘How did he know Greek?’
‘It’s all those foreign guides,’ said Madam Cordonia,
‘You never know what language they’ll be speaking.’
Black chuckled, ‘The tribes of heaven
Are running short of free-born Englishmen.’
He said to Monkhouse, ‘What about it?
There’s a job for a death-time waiting for you,
Will I bring you out a bottle of cyanide?’
‘My father died in the war,’ said Monkhouse.
And, for the time being, Black said no more.
On Saturday mornings ‘psychometry’ was the vogue,
And working women, laden
With bags of family purchases came in
For an hour of companionship and reassurance.
The ‘medium’ on such occasions
Was a young woman called Maggie Blythe,
Full of good spirits and cheery back-chat,
Who had sold pink pills in the market
And for all ailments recommended ‘skoolcap’.
Keys, trinkets, thimbles, even wedding rings
Were handed up. The ‘medium’ held them
Reverently. They were their owners’ being.
But in effect she told fortunes from them
And according to some people
Should have been locked up.
Hannibal decided to try her out.
With some difficulty he and Black persuaded
Monkhouse to write out the magic formula
That linked God with the square root of minus one.
At first he was reluctant. A medium’s brain,
He argued, was much like the bore of a pipe,
And limited the flow of information
And what a spirit could say. But Black persisted.
‘There’s pi in it, so there must be God in it.
If the spirits say what the medium can’t know,
Your case is proved. But if they don’t,
You’re not a ha’p’orth worse off than before.’
So it was written, sealed in an envelope
And kept for the day. But in a fit of fun
Hannibal took another sheet
And wrote on it in bold uncials
The one word ‘shit’, covered it identically
And sealed it, but on it spread a few drops
Of a tincture of Cologne mist
Supplied by one of the shorthand typists.
When he handed the two envelopes up
The medium snapped at him, ‘One at a time,
I’ll not have the guides confused.
That’s a sure pathway to a nervous breakdown.
Now, that’s the first one. May I open it?’
Hannibal caught a whiff
Of Eau de Cologne and cried ‘Good God, no.”
The medium laughed. ‘I sense a love-letter.
Even through the thick manila envelope.
Send it and be damned. Marriages
Are made in heaven though the mills of God
Grind only in accordance with their grist
And sometimes to little effect.’ The women laughed.
‘Now. Where’s the other one?’ She fingered it,
‘This one is not so easy to penetrate.
Were you thinking of posting it?
Looking for a job, I feel. Once more why not?
Post and be damned.
A job and a woman will get you up in life
And she’ll stay pretty if the job’s well paid.’
The women laughed again, some ruefully.
Hannibal went back once only
To certify that he was unconverted
And bid Madam Cordonia goodbye.
‘It’s a wonderful ism,’ she persisted.
‘But a cruel ism and a bitter ism,
With all the riff-raff that call themselves mediums.’
Later he sent her a half-note
And said to himself, ‘The poor old devil.
She half believes in it. So the thing’s “level”. ‘
E The don’s dinner
In the midst of the short dark dismal days
Overshadowed by winter’s curtain
But not yet savaged with his mattock,
A more sophisticated Hannibal
Turned in an essay most disparaging
Of Plato, the revered Athenian sage.
‘Male caryatid’ he called him (pace Antœus),
‘Samson of the temple of tautology.
His Socrates spilt homespun platitudes
And though he may have been ill-reported
By this pedestrian admirer,
On the apparent showing he was hardly
Worth the hemlock that had snuffed him.
It was waste of good poison.’
Athercliffe shook with laughter,
For secretly he thought the same himself,
But it wasn’t one of the things that you could say.
So he stood by his duty, which was
To proclaim such heresies preposterous,
Contrary to anything ever taught
Within the eleemosynary precincts
Of this proud oppidum of learning.
Mind, taken as a whole, one way or another,
The essay had merit, maybe a dubious merit,
A merit on balance to be discouraged,
Though also to be approved in moderation,
That of originality. And it was true
That Plato’s was an intellect in retreat,
But there were times and there were circumstances
When intellect was forced into retreat,
When to go backwards was to go forwards
In pursuance of its liberating mission.
‘And I fear,’ said Attercliffe, ‘such times are with us
And circumstances govern us.’
But then to his surprise
Hannibal found himself invited to dinner,
‘A small, modest, informal affair
Of the youngest class of don, perhaps a couple
Of undergraduates of the brighter sort.
My wife favours sons of good families,
Though tell me what is a good family.
And as for yourself, she calls you
The long-limbed saviour of the finny tribe
And asks if you can recite Yeats.’
‘I can’t,’ said Hannibal, ‘Though nobody
Is a better critic of those who can.’
‘She wants an Irish accent. Though I’ve told her
That yours if anything has a trace of Scotch.’
But turning back to Socrates and Plato
He could not forbear a final caution.
‘Don Quixote when he tilted at windmills
Was well aware that they couldn’t tilt back.
Statues are different. They’ve more humanity.
They’re graven images and works of the devil.
Do you remember in the opera
One of them bears off Don Juan to hell?
Some of the statues here have pride like rams,
Memories like elephants, claws like cats.
Professor James has spent his life on Plato.’
Hannibal’s watch was fast. He arrived early
To his irritation and embarrassment,
But, soothed by an Amontillado,
He sat in an armchair and waited the paraclete.
Peter Attercliffe’s wife was a tall, graceful,
Capable, commanding, managing young woman
Whose eyes flashed unmistakable worldly wisdom.
A teacher from the north, she had married
Above her, and contemplated further
Elevation on the balloon of marital fame.
She wore light tweeds and pastel neck-gear,
But no rings, bangles, pendants, powder or paint,
And her hair was cut like a man’s.
She had bustled unobtrusively for awhile,
Putting this here and that there,
But after a brief visit to the kitchen
Planted herself with a touch of ceremony
On a silk pouffe, and smoked Balkan Sobranie
Through a tortoise-shell holder a mile long.
For a while she took no notice of her guest
But finally turned to Attercliffe
And asked, ‘My dear, is this the child
I dubbed the saviour of the finny tribe?’
Not waiting for an answer
She turned to Hannibal
With the sort of nonchalance an Empress
Might show a eunuch as she was disrobed
Amid the degenerate spendour of Byzantium.
She told him, ‘He always goes fishing
When I want him in bed. He only wants me
When I’m jaded with housework or feeling lesbian.
Keep at him once a week with silly questions
And, given time, you’ll make a husband of him.’
A small child romped in after a kitten.
‘Our first mistake,’ she said. Attercliffe lifted
The child by the waistband, the kitten by the neck
And deposited both in the custody
Of a wisp of a maid in black stockings
And white apron. Guests came and there were cocktails.
And Sybil Attercliffe told her story.
‘Like Mr Colqhoun I’ve a love for fishes
But more for the fisherman, and I’ve been fishing,
Fishing in the cause of social progress.
Now to be frank, nobody attempted
A Caribbean war-dance on the bank,
But I hadn’t a bite. The bait wasn’t taken.
We’ll have our party, but there’s nothing to celebrate.
Social Credit, they say, doesn’t go far enough.
They want a new social system, restoring
Sanctity to the family, unity to the nation,
Strength to the state. So they’ll not help us.
But I’ll tell you my main humiliation
Was that vile East End banger we are running
And parking it in a drive rolling with Royces,
Plus an odd Mercedes-Benz or fast Bugatti.
You should have seen how Clutterbrook looked at it.
I felt like a worm, no, a washerwoman
Collecting soiled smalls for the dolly-tub,
While that vile, vulgar, brassy bonnet
Kept gleaming with the watery sun on it,
Like a fat bum with too many holes in it.
If we murder for it, throttle and swing
We must have a decent car. These days
Diplomacy travels on wheels. Anyway
They’ll give us nothing, not even to divide
The Labour vote, and I’d set my heart
On Peter’s throwing his hat in the ring.
Clutterbrook’s a chilly mortal,
With a very public school accent, and I’m told
He spends his holidays in Paris,
Whoring with royalty. They’re really snobs.
Dunkelgeist was there, reeking of schnapps.
There was something about the new German government.
He might give up his lectureship here
And end his life in luxury and honour
In the heimat. And then there was some business
About a magazine Clutterbrook’s starting
But wants more backers and an editor.
They gave me a couple of glasses of champagne
And I heard some very amusing denigration
Of a Hebrew with an unpronounceable name
Who has revolutionised relations
With industry. He has commercialised
Things that used to be there for the picking
Like filberts, brambles and elderberries.
He’s gone in for contracts and sponsored studentships,
Each one with a consultancy for himself.
He goes off to Birmingham, Bristol, or Leeds
Where they meet him at the station
In a plush car, buy him a slap-up lunch
And minute his highfalutin’ expert reasons
For doing whatever they’ve decided to do already.
The idea struck me like a thunderclap.
Why can’t Peter get consultancies?
It seems to be the done thing these days.’
‘Unfortunately,’ said Attercliffe, ‘everybody
Thinks he can think, and nobody is going
To ask advice about the thinking process.
You must remember that Zbigniewsky
Is an engineer. What he is doing
Is squaring the circles, the industrial circle
Of public production and private ownership
With palpable advantage to himself.’
‘Isn’t it dreadful?’ Sybil Attercliffe
Said suddenly to Hannibal. ‘My husband
Genuinely wants to get on. No. Don’t protest
It isn’t vulgar to speak of actualities.
But he talks of “intellectual prostituion”
When we need a new car. Where in God’s name
Are his priorities? Putting it plain
He wants the diamonds but won’t pan the shit.’
Hannibal took refuge in the rôle of ‘nice boy’,
Put on his winsome smile, as if to wish
Bon voyage to the pacifying bon mot,
And said, ‘Perhaps too many think
Philosophy is the nomenclature of ignorance.
Who could make money out of that?’
At this point, before Attercliffe could reply,
A gong sounded and they all went in to dinner.
F Money from the City
It would be somewhat after Whitsuntide.
Lime petals fell untidily. Foliage darkened,
Apologising for the brash foison of spring,
And those about to be weighed in the balance
Chose midnight cram or the University Arms
According to necessity and temperament.
And now Hannibal heard once more
Of the periodical soon to be issued
By The Coriolanus Trust. ‘Who were they?’
He asked Attercliffe. He answered, ‘Clutterbrook,
And some of his friends in the City.’
Who these were historians discovered
Fifty years afterwards. Meanwhile imagine
Something like this, a cramped office
At the head of a wandering branching staircase
With more of a smell of oil and less of paper
Than is found in the usual solicitor’s den
And all around, caves and cubby-holes,
An apiary of glass partitions
Individualising the click of typewriters
And the importunacy of telephones.
See Clutterbrook sitting with Sir Avidue Bull.
Then both get up and go to another building,
This one a palace, pillared and entablatured,
The first being a house of the iron age
The second of the age of gold. And here
They discuss with Sir Montagu Timon
A modicum of financial birdseed
For the canaries of political persuasion,
After which Clutterbrook and Bull
Repair to the Ritz Hotel where Bull is staying
Before sailing to Suez and Singapore.
‘We must end this absurd truckling to France,’
Says Bull, rubber-planter and co-chairman
Of the Holy Trinity Trust for Gums and Rubbers,
Sole manufacturer of Happy Family
Patent washable sheaths – very profitable,
But he’d like to break into the tyre business.
‘What the market needs,’ he goes on, ‘is the sort
Of boost the opening-up of Germany
To military orders could give. I’d say
With only moderate luck it would double demand.
We want to be thinking less of froggy entente
And more of the thickness of the rich red blood
We share with our fellow Teutons.
Could we not call the paper Nordica
And make it an organ of spiritual renewal
And things like that, you know the sort of thing,
A fresh pure breeze from the unpolluted pole.
Or isn’t that the way to go about it?’
Says Clutterbrook, ‘It sounds a trifle shivery.
And that puts people off. We want a name
With a sweetly scented romantic vagueness
Showing the tendency but not shouting it,
So that people can read their own vision into it
And give subs for what they think it is even if it isn’t.’
Bull laughed, ‘For example?’
‘I’m not an academic, though I can tell you,
They can be hired and fired. They have come up
With titles like The Everlasting Flame,
Wotan and Jupiter, Old Mother Europe,
Stonehenge and The New Deucalion – lots of things
Can be thought of once you sit down and think.
And, after today, we can pay them for it.
I think I can tell you, without breaching confidence,
I’ve lined up a young don as editor,
An able youngster and very ambitious.
I’d swear he would unhesitatingly murder
His mother-in-law for a seat at a top table,
And his wife is a scheming bitch. But that also
Can be directed to good purpose. She’s clever.
And there’s another gentleman I have in mind,
A very distinguished man, a German doctor
(I’m not quite sure what he’s a doctor of),
But he’s shortly returning to his homeland
To occupy a most prestigious berth.
Unless I am most grievously misinformed
He will have access to the Chancellor.
That could work several ways to our advantage.’
See drinks brought in, convivial spirits rise.
‘They may want aircraft too,’ says Bull, ‘You must
Have noticed the size of the tyres on those things.’
‘Ah!, dear fellow, magnitude I admit
Brings turnover. But it is not the same
As profit. Do not underestimate
The universality of sheer breed,
For I can tell you, if there’s another war
Many happy families will be broken up,
So the warriors will need to take something with them.’
‘Really? Not for what goes out?’ ‘No, for what comes in.’
‘Well, we should be able to keep up production.
You know how they’re made of course. Rubber
Is painted on specially designed pegs,
And when dry it is rolled off, all done by girls.
I’ll show you round the factory when you like.’
‘You’ve got to identify with your customers,’
Said Clutterbrook, ‘So you’ll need a special brand,
Or failing that a special brand name.’
‘What will you choose?’ I’ve got it, Valhalla.
Don’t laugh. Trade names, I do assure you,
Have more impact on public consciousness
Than the Royal Society.’ Now imagine them
Chuckling their way through a five-course business lunch
From smoked salmon to apricots in brandy.
G Zoroastrian Dawn
Sybil Attercliffe felt the pride of creation
When Peter was made managing editor
Of Zoroastrian Dawn, that sober
Scholarly quarterly that was to be
Devoted to the cause of Aryan
Understanding and of the true elite.
‘You see,’ she said, ‘I did hook the fish,
Though I couldn’t land him. But he’s jumped.
And I’m quite sure the new car must have helped,
Plus my discreet and timely intimation
That we’d changed our minds about Social Credit.
Also, I think, possibly Clutterbrook
Is getting less snobbish. This is the age
Of the ordinary man, and leadership
Daren’t be remote. Moreover there’s a kernel
Of aristocratic idealism in him.
After all he was actually born rich.
And he hobnobs with royalty. Nobody knows
Where it might lead.’ ‘”Goes whoring” you said last time.
I tell you frankly I don’t like the man.
I’d sooner have bald bumptious Dunkelgeist.
I’m by no means sure I’ve done the right thing.’
‘Peter, you must do it for the children’s sake.
We’ll soon be facing the fees of Ariel’s prep-school.
Regard it as a stepladder.
Later, when we are up, you can lock it away.’
‘It will, as you say, get my name around.
I’ve absolute editorial discretion
Subject to owner’s general guide-lines
And five hundred a year is fair enough
For the amount I’ll have to do. By the way,
Dunlelgeist says I should take up D’Annunzio.
He’s made a very good thing out of Spengler.
He says the days are gone
When there is any fertility in the west.
We must chew the cud of the past,
Though he has hopes of this new government.’
H Attercliffe editor
Editorship, Attercliffe soon learned,
Is a honey-pot open to rape by insects,
Robbery by monkeys and distraint
By the payers of wages and printers’ bills.
He knew he would have to accommodate
Dunkelgeist, who produced for fifty pounds
An essay he assured him represented
The fruit of a life-time of hard thinking,
Although his secretary treacherously admitted
It was dictated in a morning. It was called
‘A brief critical prolegomenon
To the conceptual analysis
Of spatio-temporal paralogism
In the corpus of Oswald Spengler,’
A philosopher he certified
‘The prose Lucretius of post-Faustian man,’
Who had solved the riddle of the pyramids.
They were not stone enclosing space, but space
Enclosed by stone. Such insights were the mask
Of true genius and put to shame the fantasies
Of a certain computatious Jew who tried
To put a steel ring through the cosmic nose
And lead the gods into captivity.
Attercliffe also had wished on him
An ‘eternal student’ in knickerbockers
Who taught Slavonic history to exiles,
Conspiring diplomats and gum-shoe men,
But couldn’t get on the staff of anything,
Although his father was a Polish prince
Who had lost one fortune to the Bolsheviks
And another to those who were fighting them.
And yet, Clutterbrook said, did Bolshevism
Collapse, as every right-thinking man hoped
It would, and every realist knew it wouldn’t
Without a good push, this quasi-bummer
Would be signing cheques for half a million.
He had to be kept friendly, and so this princeling,
Known to the students as Sweet Buggeroff
Was given his column. He had had a contract
With the London Bulletin of Monadic Studies,
The quarterly’s predecessor, now to be discontinued.
One afternoon, shortly before the Doctor
Went back to the Fatherland, Attercliffe
Brought Hannibal into his room, sat him
In the visitor’s golden chair, poured out a sherry
And showed him pages from an exercise book
Bescrawled with heavy Gothic cursives
And said it was Voronoff’s copy. ‘Who was Voronoff?’
‘Fenchester’s mendicant prince.’ Dunkelgeist
Had glanced at it and said it required
Two translations but made no offer of doing them.
‘And,’ said Attercliffe, ‘it couldn’t have come
At a worse time. I’m going to Italy,
The land of lemon-flowers and castor oil,
But I’ve got to publish it in September.
Mr Colqhoun, editorial autonomy
Is like the pork in a can of pork and beans,
Hard to track down and, when identified,
Observed with relief mingled with apprehension.
Well, here it is. Do you think you could help us out?
Knock it into some kind of shape. In essence
His argument is that the Russians
Are not true Slavs, but descendents
Of semi-Mongolian nomads who roamed the steppes
After the ice-age. Nobody could prove it.
One way or the other, so it does small harm.
And he has contacts with Embassies,
He’d get the paper to them out of egotism.
Clutterbrook tholes him for that reason.
I was shown a piece he wrote in The Mottleshirt,
An absurd story about secret police
Standing on a quayside at Astrakhan
To arrest two fishermen who had prayed in a storm.
They seized them, disrobed them and dumped them
Through an ice-hole into the White Sea.
It’s a marvel he didn’t make it the Yellow River.
But I don’t think any of our readers will see it,
If they do we’ll swear it’s not by the same man.
But – Oh! – What sort of fee would you expect?’
Hannibal was too grand to accept anything,
But was gratified. Here was recognition.
He knew he was a bright enough young fellow,
But appreciated an odd slap on the back.
He told Black of his good fortune, and the vistas
That seemed to be opening up before him
To his surprise, Black was contemptuous.
‘Clutterbrook and Attercliffe,’ he said,
‘Are well-bred riff-raff. I wouldn’t
Be pissed on by them if I was burning to death.
Clutterbrook’s a Fascist. The other’s a Social-Fascist.
To have anything to do with them socially,
Let alone to do serious business with them,
Is deplorable. You should wilt with shame.’
‘Isn’t man supposed to be born in shame?’
‘Supposed!’ said Black, ‘I tell you he is not.
He is born in pride. Ask it of any mother.
But when he’s older and opportunity tempts
And responsibility frightens, then the shame
Creeps up his arse and gives him jelly-guts.
You are supposed to be an Irishman.
Did you ever hear tell of a Welshman called Patrick?
They asked him to suck tits to be let on a boat,
But he wouldn’t. Isn’t that good enough for you?’
‘It is and it isn’t. For that same man
Preached loving our enemies, blessing those
Who hated us and turning the other cheek.
As the Scots say, “muckle he made o’ that!”’
‘I never noticed much of it,’ said Black.
So they went for a drink and a good laugh.
I The Clutterbrooks
Quite shortly after this small contretemps
Hannibal found in his mail a gilt-edged card
Embossed with a swastika amidships
And lettered in a quaint Gothic script.
This bade him to an ‘Auf Wiedersehn Reception’
On behalf of Wolfgang Hermann Dunkelgeist,
To be addressed by the baronet Knowsley,
Widely proclaimed the modern Coriolanus,
At an eccentric palace clept by the townies
‘Old Clutty’s folly,’ though on its portals
Clearly inscribed was the legend ‘Fort St George’.
Branton, a bookseller who kept things for him,
Sat in his cavern when Hannibal went in.
Shafts of rainbow dust-speckled sunlight
Materialised the zeal of some fastidious customer
Who had fouled the air with decades’ dust.
Branton explained the provenance of the nickname.
Despite its turrets and hobgoblin towers
It was not old. Many still living had seen
The drainpipes lying like logs on a muddied field.
Its bricks, stacked timber and fuming lime-pit
Teachers exampled as a warning of hell
For children who scrumped apples or told lies.
Mr Clutterbrook’s grandfather had built it,
Son of the founder of the family,
A naval chandler who made a hillock
Selling victuals against Napoleon in Pompey,
And an alp in the railway boom.
Those fingers were yellow with counting gold
Before the century was halfway through.
‘That should have been enough,’ Branton went on,
‘But it wasn’t. He wanted to stand for Parliament,
No doubt with a view to promoting some project
Essential to the common weal. But in those days,
Even for that you had to be a gentleman,
Preferably two or three generations removed,
From footpads, horse-thieves, brothel-keepers, currency-swindlers,
Forgers, counterfeiters and prosperous bawds.
Land robbery and enclosures didn’t count.
As I say, you had to be a gentleman.
Social mobility wasn’t even thought of.
Even after the Act of sixty-seven
The artisans of Eastleigh wouldn’t have him,
Because they recognised he was one of their own.
Hence the adage, to get more votes for the party
Put up a cat. So quite early on
He said to himself, “I’ll never be quality,
But, by God, I’ll breed it.” They say he picked up
A Viscount’s daughter cheap at a charity hop,
Very good-looking but a bit potty,
And the result was Marmaduke – what a name!
Clutterbrook’s grandfer I was talking about.
He changed the name to Malcolm afterwards.
They sent him to a very genteel school.
That’s where the brass counted, they could pay.
They gave him more pocket money than was good
For any schoolboy, but as everyone knows
Aristocracy’s a bit of a hungry whore,
Money a great filler. So they got on.
The supposed descendants of the Conqueror
And the Conqueror’s louts, were prejudiced,
But prejudice melted in the sunshine of cash.
He was accepted and before long
He got that assured manner and refined speech
So typical of the lot of them. To me
It reeks like rosewater on hot shit.
He wasn’t a bad fellow – not like some of them –
I could tell you a few stories about aristocrats.’
The assistant availed himself of the slight pause.
‘Yes, Mr Colqhoun, Mr Branton’s right.
You wouldn’t credit the names o’ some of ’em
As were caught lifting books in this ‘ere shop.
And it wouldn’t be no good calling the police.’
Branton resumed. ‘Anyway, Marmy was barmy,
He went to join the army, and, by God,
Did very well at it, travelled the world,
And became a Field Marshal, if I’m not mistaken,
Though we all called him the old General.
I remember him well with his white moustache
And jolly red face, though if you crossed him
He could become a scowling martinet.
Otherwise you couldn’t meet a pleasanter.
I could never understand just why he did it,
Perhaps he felt he hadn’t enough past,
We’re none of us content with our own time,
But he used to come here to ask my father
For books on military history.
Then he started collecting memorabilia,
Medals, militaria, antique fire-arms, badges,
Uniforms, weapons. Toward the end of his days
It became a craze. He would buy anything,
No matter how ridiculous – a herring
If it was kippered in the smoke of war.
Do you know – this is one of the best of them –
He bought the Duke of Wellington’s baby-pants
At a seedy junkshop in St Martin’s Lane,
Paid five pounds ten. It got to such a pitch
That if he had found a draggled scrap of paper
Marlborough, Clive, Nelson, let alone Cromwell,
Had wiped his arse on, he’d have had it embalmed,
Shit and all, and now you can understand it.
He built St George to accommodate his rubbish.
Mind you, his sons wouldn’t touch the army.
They were barristers, company directors,
Stock-brokers, Crown Agents for the colonies,
Stallions for swell families and mean as muck.’
‘What about the present Clutterbrook?’
‘I don’t know him. If he buys any books,
He must buy them in London.’
And that was all the bookseller would say.
J The mad party
For all of Black, Hannibal went,
And a strange party indeed it was.
It resembled nothing he had ever heard of,
Was most probably without precedent
And certainly without successor.
His sanguine imagination had populated
The scene with liberated spirits, creatures
Of pharic intellect who lighted the way
Like pillars of fire before the simian throng.
They were not there. Nor, let it be recorded,
Were objects of alternative speculation.
For example, might there not have been
Some elder statesman Clutterbrook might coax
Along to shoot peas of dry worldiness
At novices, and by the thrust of wit
Reveal to all the nudity of the age?
And where were the great unrecognised, the poets
Of the new dawn? Not one of them was present,
Not even to dribble like a cracked flute
Or dance like a drunken caterpillar
To vulgarity’s tambourine,
As some of them did in those days.
There was nothing here of this superior sort.
As the guests arrived a flunkey bawled their names
And Clutterbrook off-handedly shook hands,
But this al fresco protocol fell through
When some of the waiters were suspected
Of drinking and investigations
Were set on foot. Thereafter
A kind of bustling hospitality
Came from the wife, a cheery woman Clutterbrook
Met in Vienna, and had the sense to marry
For her good temper. Soon there were little knots
Of like with like gathered like spots of oil
On water, to which black-shirted youths
Took drinks and tit-bits. The host’s aunt declared
Of this extremely ill-assorted company,
‘Really, this is slumming in one’s own home.
We used to go to the East End
When we were saving the Empiah.’
There was one group that talked about houses,
Starting prices and going to ‘Lunnon’.
Middling tradesmen exchanged indignation
That Jews were meddling in the laundry trade,
Already choked with chin-chin Chinamen
Working the clock twice round and still
Ready for more. The foreigners, they said,
Would take the country over in twenty years
And men who couldn’t speak a word of English
Would have every worth-while business in the land.
Elsewhere were men with regiments to boast of,
And near them, to Hannibal’s amused contempt,
For he heard their loud voices, three salesmen
Of beef-extract grandiously guffawed
And told stories of high cockalorum.
In the salubrities of ‘Bonus Airs’,
Where the legal doctrine of non-tortious rape
Kept many a ship’s officer afloat.
‘It works like this, old boy,’ said Willie Church,
‘Suppose I spot a nice little piece of popsy,
I have her. My business how I do it.
But she’s not sixteen. Her father takes me to court.
I say she asked me and I paid for it.
He asks how much. I state a figure. He says,
“My dutiful daughter should have paid me that,”
And asks for that sum plus compensation.
But then you go to court as my witness
And swear you had her, she asked and you paid
The same amount. You did it in all innocence.
Well, that’s that. If Christ came down from the cross
And certified her pure as the Virgin Mary,
She’s a prostitute. Case dismissed. Nothing to pay.
And I would have to do the same for you.
It’s a game of leap-frog.’ The salesmen laughed.
‘We’re weak and watery workers in this country,
Though it’s not too bad when you know the ropes.
You remember, Willie, that holiday night
At Victoria Station when we threw two whores
Over the milk-churns while the police looked on?
We got it for nothing that time.’ ‘Depend on it,
The Met. know the score. But put your shirt on this.
It would be different if those Commie-boys
Were ever to rule the roost. They’d see they got
What the Bishop saw, but we’d be Christian soldiers.’
‘Quite right, old boy. If those fellows ever got in,
By God, you’d have to keep your pride in your pants.’
‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ ‘By God you would.’
‘Or cool it at home on a glass table.’
Hannibal found the Attercliffes
Under a cordylime in the palm-house,
Registered his disappointment and told them
He would wait to hear the advertised speaker,
Possibly stay for Dunkelgeist’s reply,
But then go. ‘Knowsley’s not coming,’ said the don,
‘And Clutterbrook’s desolated.
He raised the money for this in the City.’
Hannibal took a stroll round the palm house,
Each bay was filled with stranger trophies,
Torture fetishes, a hoplite’s shield,
Helmets, coats of mail, knights in armour,
But one had as its solitary exhibit
A black and ochre varnished skeleton
Clutterbrook’s grandfather against all reason
Had labelled The bones of Chaka,
Though he had bought the thing in Wardour Street.
Hannibal watched the succession of guests come in,
Coconut-headed junior businessmen,
Ruddy-faced youngsters in bucolic tweeds,
Clerks of a mean and snivelling pastiness,
Rolled up and fastened like their own umbrellas,
But ready to unbutton in any safe place,
Very few women, just a few wives of dons,
Seekers of status and the good life,
And a couple of career ladies
Such as you might see in the Queens’ Hall
On Wagner nights, plus Alderman Stigmarsh
Of the Labour Party who got to everything.
A brigadier arrived, a bit of a stupid
Who had just ‘not made it’,
A disappointed man who had given up
The bellicose glare of petty authority
For the insolent expressionlessness of class.
Two subalterns spotted the skeleton. One
Shook it by the hand, ‘Good show, old bony.
Jolly old Toot,’ he said, ‘He’ll toot no more.’
‘He’s lonely,’ said the other, ‘but not for long.
We’re opening up as purveyors to the trade.
The world is badly over-populated.’
Old Lady Chapman-Scutchgrass waddled in
On the arm of her professional companion.
‘Really, I’m disappointed, terribly.
I thought Herr Hitler would be bound to have come.
He looks so handsome in his brown shirt,
Or is it black? It’s all the same thing.
I’ll tell you what I like about the Führer.
He’s versatile. He used to be a painter.
Oh, Yes, a veritable Michelangelo.
And then during the war he was a General.
I’m sure he didn’t want to fight us.
What’s more, however, he understands business,
Very important in Germany, don’t you know.
The wine trade. Quite good families are in it.
Where are his cellars? Oh – I think near Munich.
And his wines were drunk in the palace.
That must have made him really proud.
But now you see he has gone into politics.
Oh, really versatile, much more than Mr Baldwin.’
Within the glass ramparts the more select
Guests were accommodated at tables
Of sandalwood. Incense was burned,
Amid objets d’art purchased in Venice
When England was England and what has since
Gone to America in surreptitious crates,
Was seized by the corrupt warrant of wealth.
At this point Hannibal’s disillusionment
Turned to disgust. Ladies! Gentlemen!
The full compendium of vulgarity,
And not an individual in sight.
His mind went wandering cancrizans
To quality of a very different stamp,
The farmer’s wife coming in from the chickens
In mucky gum-boots, setting about household
Management with competent aplomb,
In her domain ruling unquestioned
As woman of the house and thus a lady.
As for those popinjays, what were they fit for?
Perhaps go nap and make a sabbath of it,
Clear a space and chalk a white pentagram
On the concrete and summon up from hell
Mammon’s ass, branded aflank both sides
Not with the cross but with unclean gammadion,
Symbol of witchcraft and all vanities,
As was apparent. Finally Dunkelgeist
Himself came in, a consequential man
Of portly bearing and the booming voice
Bequeathed by God to true sons of Berlin.
He was well-dressed in a neat but country style;
No cockney’s soiled mackintosh for him.
He talked for a moment at the threshold
And Hannibal half-expected
‘God save all here.’ But the good doctor
Stood to a lax civilian attention,
Raised his right arm like a railway semaphore
And threw into space as from an ophicleide
Germany’s challenge to the world, ‘Heil Hitler!’
Whereupon five seedy blackshirt servitors
Set down their trays, and piped up dutifully,
‘Heil Hitler!’, then went on distributing
Refreshments, helping themselves as they could
To dreggy sups, sunk schooners, scraps and leavings.
Clutterbrook, sitting close to the door,
Made a perfunctory acknowledgement
Up from the elbow in the languid manner
A Gestapo chief sitting in his own office
Might receive a subordinate’s full-bodied
Salute with no more than a raised forefinger,
Passing the time of day. It would not be ‘Gruss Gott,’
But a ‘Heil Hitler’ casual as ‘Ca va,’
From a man who knew who Schickelgruber was
And came from those who set the beggar on horseback.
K The blackshirts
Later Dunkelgeist sat with Clutterbrook,
Schnapps at his elbow. As he talked he shed
His English idiom and the bottle emptied.
He spoke earnestly of the two ‘moments’
Of civilisation, land and race,
The training of young men for war,
And the sanctity of women’s tears
When holy quests engulf their pilgrims
And the impassioned warriors implode
Into nirvana. His erudition strayed
From the romantic to the recondite.
With awe of that great thinker he referred
To Spengler and the deep Faustian souls
Of emperors of private enterprise
Who course hot-foot after tomorrow’s profit,
Never satisfied with the day’s takings,
And so cheat Mephistopheles of his pledge.
‘I take your point,’ said Clutterbrook softly,
‘But we have to say “stay” to these moments now
Even if they’re only tolerably fair.
We’re doing a Metternich. Let’s face it.’
‘Nein, Nein, Mein Freund. Al zat vos so
In se dark age, gestern, before our Führer
Brought hope and choy to zis old vestern vorld
Ve so mooch lab. But ha! Must I shpeke English
In ze Attic mode? Ze young man listens.
Ze young man vonts to hear.
All goot shtudents vont to hear
Und zey vill hear goot news.’
Dunkelgeist could speak English when he wanted,
And Attercliffe, who said nothing, suspected
A subtle national joust between the host
And the departing guest whose remigration
Jarred like the declaration of independence
When gold was found in Ruritania.
‘They’ll be back with zeppelins,’ he said
‘Pooh,’ said his wife. The syllables thudded on.
Said the philosopher: ‘Here is a zecret.
Now! Vot is time? It is ze teffel’s palace.
Gott ist ze principle of shpace. Unending
Time is no part of him nor he of time.
He keeps ze teffel in hell.’ Dunkelgeist laughed,
‘And zo time goes on for effer.
Everyzing happens again and again and again.
Zere is no escape. Ve vorship shpace durch time.
Each year, a creat tay of many tays,
Is a tay in a creater tay of more tays,
Shpace between shpokes in an everlasting veel.
Ven it is shpring-time zivilisations
Germinate. Heroes are porn. Later
Come vlowers, blossoms, and green virility
And zen zeed-zetting and vizering,
And all is shnow again before Dezember.
Vot has our Führer done? I tell you.
He shmashed ze tablets of ze calendars,
Crowned old mens’ harvests mit May garlands,
Shtarted it all ofer again,
In a vort, rejuvenated the occident,
Ja! put a monkey gland
In ze metabolism of Europe, made her
A younster vonce again, her Kultur,
Lost for a zousand years if not for effer.
Is zat no Gott-like deed? A zousand years
Of handcuffs on ze delinquent wrists of time.’
‘I wouldn’t count on that,’ said Clutterbrook,
‘There are rum birds beyond the Vistula.
Civilise the east or the west will perish.’
‘I knows it well. It is our Führer’s mission,
And who know, before the century is out
We may be helping you to rule India.’
He was speaking plain English now. Amazing!
Hannibal would like to have followed further,
But the least unprepossessing of the blackshirts,
Whether from heat, boredom or alcohol,
Sighting a vacant space somewhat behind
The dais, set down his tray of caviar
On toast, gherkins, stuffed olives and stick sausages
And somewhat to the student’s embarrassment,
Presuming on the solidarity of youth,
Leaned over towards him to unburden.
‘Me and my girl-friend’s going to bed together,
But none of those Jew-boys will tell us what to do.
My mate – him dishing out the liqueurs –
Just laughs and says there’s three holes in a woman,
But a boy at barracks sniggers and says there’s seven,
But they won’t tell me where they all are.
Next time he laughs at me I’m going to bash him,
Bash him from behind when he’s having a piss.’
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Hannibal,
‘Is that the one you told me was your “mate”? ‘
‘So he is. Don’t we go on jobs together?
All the same he’s an ill-bred, low-down tike.
My dad’s got a milk-round. His is a Jew-boy.
He says he isn’t but I know he is.
He wouldn’t have a pawn-shop if he wasn’t.
And d’you know what that one was kicked out for?
Punching the pledges and popping them. That shows him up.
The old man copped him and told him to piss off,
So he went bumming to the barracks. He’s only a tramp.
If he goes telling lies about me, I’ll bash him,
And I’ll bash the old man too, bash both of them,
And bash a few more Jew-boys for good measure.’
Slightly unsteadily he took his tray
And resumed feeding the not unduly hungry.
Dunkelgeist was still expounding
When an important announcement was made:
The chief was coming after all. Attercliffe laughed.
‘Yes – no – yes, and anticipation mounts.
So rumour was right. When there’s an election
He intends to stand for Fenchurch. That makes sense.
Of this elaborate absurdity.
I keep asking, is it a horse worth riding.’
But then the blackshirt’s ‘mate’ sidled up,
‘What’s shitty-arse been saying about me?’
‘Nothing derogatory, my good man.’
‘I’m not your man. Don’t come the toff with me,
For that’s not going to mean much very long.
You give me the brush off, stand on your dignity.
You’ve got feelings. We ain’t allowed feelings.
You fuck my sister – nothing derogatory –
You and your swish banquets and mortar-boards.
If I let you go, and that’s if I let you,
You’ll live to see the lot of it burnt down.
Yes, mate, burnt fucking down, books and all.
They’re very very dry and they’ll go up well.’
The blackshirt came closer. ‘Listen, now, baby,
Tell me what he said to you or I’ll cut you.’
Hannibal looked at the wilted specimen –
In a cabbage he would have diagnosed root-fly –
He told him, ‘Send me a postcard when you’re ready.’
There was no postcard but there was a knife,
Its tip menacingly protruding. In a flash
Hannibal’s mind went back to Miser Jim.
He used what he judged to be that split second
Between brain and trigger that thwarts murder,
And seized the blackshirt by the throat, sending
The knife clattering and the oaf sprawling
Amid smashed glass and broken dainty chairs
Once sweetened by the rumps of dogarettas.
Oh! Confusion. Tut, tut, and dear, dear!
Genteel silks bespattered with pink gin.
Cylindrical man emerged from the shadows
For the protection of the King’s Peace,
Silently, swiftly picked up the blackshirt,
Propelled him to the door, threw him down
The steps and hissed after him, ‘Get back to barracks.
We’ll see about breaking your teeth tomorrow.’
Hannibal took the knife to Clutterbrook.
‘I take it, sir, if I may coin a phrase,
This seems to be an assassination party.’
Clutterbrook asked, ‘Do you want me to call the police?’
‘Of course not.’ ‘Well, I’m sorry.
We have to make use of this scum,
But I confess to a slight error of judgement.
For things like this you need professionals
I’d have been better off with Boy Scouts.’
Later, when Hannibal took his leave
Cylindrical man accosted him
Under two newly placed vast Union Jacks,
‘Mr Colqhoun, it was understandable.
You thought you had to act quickly, and you did.
I like to see a gentleman using his hands,
He had a knife, but pray believe you me
It might as well have been a Chinaman’s pigtail.
He showed it but he couldn’t use it. No.
He wouldn’t have had a notion where to stab.’
‘Hm!’ said Hannibal, ‘A blow struck at random
Can be mighty damaging.’ ‘It can but it wouldn’t.
He’d not have the guts. But never mind. We’ll fix him.
He’ll be a very sorry young fellow tomorrow.
Some of them forget their place. By the way,
You won’t need to say anything to the press?
You wouldn’t want to harm Mr Clutterbrook,
After his generous hospitality.
Yes, indeed. He’s a very generous man,
Very generous indeed. Goodnight to you, Mr Colqhoun.’
A Fenchester Ferret
Black laughed uproariously at Hannibal’s tale.
‘The trouble with philosophers,’ he said,
‘Is they can’t smell shit; they have to fall in it.’
He gave a smile of self-congratulation,
Born proselytiser that he was,
For that the balance pan had shifted
And come down on the right side.
A man sceptical from having been reared
In faith, had come to blows unwittingly
For the cause, and would now be a sound soldier.
Attracted by the meretricious hare
Of an élite culture, when he saw it
At close quarters, he found it maggot-ridden,
And could communicate nothing but disease.
Rumours of the fracas briefly excited
The luncheon tables of Clutterbrook’s enemies,
While in The Stag Hannibal fought for England
Against the black-haired greasy foreign hordes.
Madam Cordonia said she had seen the battle
With the spirit’s eye, and indeed was watching it
When the bell rang and the governer shouted time,
So then she had to stop and gather the glasses.
Tom Smith, Editor of the Fenchester Ferret,
Sent out two cubs and a photographer
To Fort St George the day after the party.
‘Two waiters were sacked. See if you can find them.
And find out what the God-damn show was FOR.
You don’t bring Rothermere or Lady Houston
To waft a bosch professor over the sea.
Why did they keep the thing so bloody dark?’
One of the gardeners, wheedled into The Stag,
Told what he knew. Two servants were dismissed
For sampling the valedictory gin.
They’d left for London. It was a blackshirt
Who pulled a knife on the young Irishman,
Said he insulted him, so Paddy floored him
And by way of encore upturned a few tables
And dyed some white shirt-fronts a delicate pink.
Did he actually see it? ‘Well, not exactly,’
But had it faithfully described to him.
What a picture to miss, thought the camera man,
Shocked faces, irreplaceable movables
Jumbled in scented and auriferous chaos.
But what was the party for? A bye-election
Was expected soon. Clutterbrook wanted Stigmarsh
To stand down in his favour and brought Knowsley,
Hoping to convince him, but he didn’t.
Dunkelgeist’s exit was thus in part a cover.
Another whiskey and the tale was told.
The copy wrote itself. Tamworth referred
To the worthy doctor’s ‘Rich mahogany voice,’
Huge hands all thumbs to ‘molendinaceous arms,’
And his ‘ramifying conceptualising brain’.
Biggs took the tally of what Knowsley had said,
Mainly about the menace of communism
And in the joust of gutter against road
To try to be understanding of the gutter,
For red blood was needed to defend blue,
And they collaborated on the ructions.
‘Verification,’ said Smith and telephoned.
He spoke to Clutterbrook but his face
Sobered. This was the time of year when ink-men
Hopped, flapped and pecked like hungry magpies,
Wee gobs agape for the smallest crumb of gossip.
But Smith said, ‘Kill it.’ ‘Why? What’s wrong with it?’
‘Nothing, apart from a certain wordiness
That could quite easily be ironed out,
But we can’t take a rich man’s trousers down,
Even in the dearth of Lammas.’ That was that.
He bought them sandwiches and a bottle of beer,
Deftly forestalling mutiny, and in half an hour
They were saying, ‘That’s a man who knows his business.’
He led on the advent of a ghostly cat
Seen by an eminent Justice of the Peace
To pass through a brick wall in broad daylight.
B Journey to Wales
‘Listen,’ said Black, ‘I’ve bought an old jalopy
For four pound ten at a roadside motor sale.
I’ll lift you west and run you on to Fishguard,
And on the way you can meet my old man.
He’s the head quack of a county looney-bin.’
They left on a wet day. The roof leaked.
The engine coughed. The wipers wouldn’t work,
So they drove slowly till the dribbling ceased
And a low mist turned all colours pastel
And Post Office scarlet a vulgar affront.
Somewhere in the inhospitable midlands
They watched a lorry laden with milk churns
Back on to pastureland scalloped with ridges
Men sweated over in the days of rundale.
Driver and mate got out. Thirty-six gallons
At a time they emptied on the sward, moving
A few yards further back after they had teamed.
‘Waste of good milk,’ said Black, ‘We’ll tackle them
For justification. Ho! – a smell of pyridine!’
The driver showed no anger at being questioned.
‘Unsaleable, mate, and undrinkable too.’
‘Do you think this is good work when kids are starving?’
‘It’s not my job to think, mate. If I did
I mightn’t have a job.’ The other said,
‘If I think, mate, I don’t say nothing about it’
And neither of them would say another word.
So to the Severn as heretofore
Hannibal to the Bann. In old Hereford.
The sun shone now and lit the swarthier faces
Of men who drank cider and threw quoits
In the bar. Hearing his accent, Hannibal
Asked one was he Welsh. ‘Oh No. Not me.
I’m a white-faced ‘un, though you’ll find
Quite a few Taffies squatting round these parts.
They keep themselves to themselves, they do,
And they’re always bloody well singing.
A good half of them don’t believe in our king.’
He went on with his game. ‘Interesting,’
Said Black. ‘What past events, I wonder,
Are seen congealed in this man’s prejudices.
Is it the resistance of Owen Glyndwr?
We’re in the right county for it after all.
Or the prince Llewllyn? Could it even go
Back to the days of the Saxon revolution.
Against the imperial satrap Vortigern,
Whose Roman bones still faintly rattle
In the skulls of those who never heard of him.
These are the Marches, inhabited by mixtures
Faced with the dilemma of the mongrel,
Reconciliation or choice.’ He chose choice.
More precisely choice was chosen for him.
At length they reached a gaunt Victorian pile
Whose walls, like rotten teeth mortared with tartar,
Effloresced into grotesque chimneys,
With here and there a transomed watch-tower
In the Roman style, the manifest of power,
Hannibal thought, crushing the identities
Of unfortunates, whereas the minarets
Of Fort St George showed power playing the fool.
‘Good day, Mr Price,’ said the orderly at the gate-house.
He used Black’s Christian name, but deftly injected
Into long familiarity the respect due
To the newly grown-up son of his employer,
Shortly expected to be called doctor himself.
Hannibal too got a qualified deference,
But like moonlight on water it was twice reflected.
The gate-man spelled out carefully each letter
Of ‘This unusual name. It would not do
To get it wrong and hold you by mistake.
You might remain locked up for years and years.’
‘Do you find it such a trial,’ Hannibal asked,
‘To distinguish inmates from visitors?’
‘Mr Colqhoun, I’m thirty-five years here
And still can’t tell the difference.
It is more difficult than you would think, so I go by the book.
If a man’s certified, he’s mad.
Let him reel off by rote all Paradise Lost,
Name all the kings of ancient Bablyon,
Explain the theory of relativity
So that the smallest child can understand it,
If his name is in my book as certified,
He stays where he is. If he’s not certified
He’s sane until he is. He can walk out
On his two hands in mother nature’s suiting
With a skull and crossbones flapping from his toe;
If his name’s not in my book the man is sane.
And so, Mr Colqhoun, we have to be careful.
It mustn’t be wrong.’ ‘Surely,’ said Hannibal,
‘Even in the extreme case you postulate,
A sane man acting daft knows what he’s doing.’
‘He may do, Mr Colqhoun, but I do not.
What’s on his mind doesn’t show on his skin,
But whether he’s certified shows in my book.’
‘A great leg-puller,’ said Black, ‘when I was younger
He used to give me “gob-stoppers'”and tell me
He’d caught rainbows and wound them into them.
He gave my sister and me two chocolate dolls
But warned, “Whatever you do, don’t eat their bottoms.”
Needless to say, we succumbed to vain greed.’
C Dr Black
Black brought Hannibal to the doctor’s house,
Placed as it was within the complex.
‘You’ve a grand name, Mr Colqhoun. I like Hannibal
Just as I like Caradoc and Spartacus.
Were there Spanish connections somewhere in the background?’
‘Ach. There were galleons wrecked off Inishowen,
But I think my name was given for divilment.’
‘Very like. Price thinks the same of his.
We called him after a doctor in Llantrisant,
A litigious eccentric but highly thought of
Who revived gymnosophy and taught cremation,
Though, if you want the truth and Price doesn’t,
He has the makings of the same himself.
But now,’ the doctor went on, ‘welcome to Wales.
Some pundits argue that this isn’t Wales,
But we don’t take too much notice of Saxons.
Tell me, though, before we resume trivialities,
Inishowen is not far from Londonderry.
What do you think of his lordship of that name,
Going round dinner parties bragging
That he saved the bacon of the bombing plane?
How many will die of that?’ ‘I hope none,’
Said Hannibal, ‘Mind we don’t say “Londonderry,”‘
‘I should think not,’ said the doctor, missing the point.
Black’s sister came in with a bowl of roses
And Hannibal thought she looked like a rose herself,
But she didn’t stay. He asked her name – ‘Rhiannon.’
So the boy was called after a local hero,
The girl after a goddess. ‘By the way,’
Chuckled the doctor, ‘Tell me now, Hannibal,
Did you ever spend a night in a mad-house before?’
‘By God,’ said Black, ‘I’ll guarantee he did,
Every night for a stint of twenty years,
Certified at birth by the Almighty,
And praying for a long incarceration.’
Hannibal thought Black somewhat free with his father
Until he learned the man Dr Black was,
For next morning he came down and said to them,
‘I’d like you two young men to go to the Rhondda,
To do a part of what I’d do myself
But for circumstances beyond my control.
All I want you to do is to go to court,
See what happens and tell me afterwards.
Take my car if you wish – no offence meant –
But be sure to be no later than twelve o’clock.’
‘What is the case about?’ ‘My former patient,
When I was in general practice, Iorwerth Williams,
Has been arrested and charged with stealing coal.
If I were able to I would be there
To offer evidence of good character.
But I can’t. Two women are coming in,
I suspect certified to get them a roof
Over their heads. Diplomatically speaking
I must be here to look the other way.’
‘Yours is a most compassionate profession,’
Said Hannibal, surprised. ‘In Wales, yes,
But in England, no. We belong to the people
And respect their bodies for the souls inside them.
In England a man surrenders his citizenship
The moment a stethoscope touches his chest.’
‘Where is he coming up?,’ asked Black. ‘At Pentre.
You know the place – on the way to the Judge’s Hall.
Go Hirwoun and come back Pontypool.
That way you can show our Irish cousin
Our beautiful country. Show it warts and all!’
‘Duw! Duw! That’s Cromwell. Hannibal, forget it.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Hannibal with his ‘nice boy’ smile,
‘That many I was brought up with would object,
And anyway, there’s more sense in knaves than fools.
Do you remember that glorious daft nonsense
Shakespeare put into the mouth of Polonius?’
‘About being true to yourself?,’ asked Dr Black.
‘Indeed. Well there I quite agree with you.
Though I have heard the thing seriously quoted.
There are plenty of born fools and natural humbugs
As true to themselves as wetness is to water.
The Bard had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote that.’
‘Is it not possible,’ said Black, ‘that Shakespeare
Had the money-grubbing bourgeoisie in mind?
Money, true to itself, is false to nobody
Although its very nature is a falsity.’
‘He might,’ said the doctor, ‘but that’s boggy ground.’
D Trial in the Rhondda
Black took his own car and they creaked and spluttered
From one mountain valley-top to another
Above a succession of cols. To the right
Stretched the endlessly fair pastures
And green slopes of Eden, devoid of man.
To the left were smoke-filled grimy chasms
Into which the free tribes had been decanted
Like darkies into the hold of the ‘Jesus’
At the inauguration of free enterprise.
As they descended into one of these,
Hannibal recalled his half-alarmed retreat
From a mountain’s austere majesty
To the banality of Lindsay Brown.
But whatever you say about him, and bad as he is,
Man in his muck is more companionable
Than God in his perfection. Soon they entered
A disfigured junk-yard. All artifacts
Were strung like beads upon a triple thread
Of railway, river and road, the river
Boiling with ink-black foam, the road strewn
With coal-dust and horse-dung, the railway,
Though with the cleanest track, reaping the air
With fumes, sparks and eye-boring specks of coke.
‘For God’s sake,’ said Hannibal, ‘wind that window up.
‘Tis an appalling act of self-indulgence
To gorge yourself upon the stink of sulphur.’
Black was defensive, half apologetic,
Uncertain for this man of certainties.
‘These villages, grown from a bridge or a well,
Shaft, grist-mill, stable, forge, or meeting house,
May lack salubrity, but they have in them
The inhabitants old earth should be most proud of.
Though, not to be chauvinistic, I suppose
Unity in adversity breeds heroes
Anywhere in the living world.’
‘And the women are heroes too?’ ‘Of course.
Whoever said that women are not men?’
They found the dingy court-house and went in.
‘Sorry, the court’s full,’ snapped a six-foot usher
In a voice as final as a cell-door clanging.
‘Aye, full of coppers,’ said an old miner.
‘But we’ve come all the way from Fenchester,’
Hannibal protested, ‘just for this case.’
‘The public gallery’s full. You’ve come too late.’
Momentarily the door opened. Well groomed bar-man,
Pink, black and white with a wig of burnished silver
Looked out and then went back. Hannibal glimpsed
Seventy blue uniforms. Every seat,
Every square foot of possible standing room
Was filled by them, and Iorwerth Williams peered
At his enemies through a forest of antlers
That ornamented the dock with skeletal
Acanthus. ‘Damn,’ said Black, ‘I should have brought
The old man’s car. Than we’d be here in time.’
‘I doubt it would have helped,’ said the old miner.
‘I was lodge secretary for twenty years
And came today sound on the tick of nine,
An hour before the court was due to open.
I was in time to see all that happened.
Inspector Blenkinsop had all his men,
His myrmidons in full battle array
Lined up under the yellow flag of perjury,
And marched them in, two by two, like animals
Into the ark. Even the prisoner’s wife
Was left standing in the drizzle, wondering
What would become of her if her man went down.
Without hysterical tears, let me tell you,
For she’ll do something and she’s got neighbours.
But isn’t that the typical way of things.
What sees justice? The eyes of injustice,
And the tongue of injustice tells the story.
I wonder what sort of fettle he is in.
If he’s lucky his belly is blown out
Somewhere near size with a breakfast of tea and toast.
As the pap deflates so will his will weaken,
His mind, his memory, self-confidence,
Manhood itself. He starts fumbling for words
He knows quite well but can’t articulate.
And at that time the police bullies leap in.
His accuser’s life-felling chyle, derived
From sausages, kippers, eggs or good back rashers,
Filters reliably into their bloodstreams
And powers impertinence and insult.
This shows that God is good and feeds his children,
Especially those who lighten his task of judgement
And get things done, so to speak, beforehand.
I count this as a funeral. I go to funerals.
Some poor devil dies almost every week.
My presence is a human being’s protest
Against the cruelty of evolution
That gave us all these sensibilities
But made them so corruptible, and set us
In a cosmic cockpit where we fight for nothing.’
‘Tell me,’ said Black, ‘where does the prisoner live?’
‘Where does he live? Over on Heol yr Orsedd,
That row of regal company cottages
Clung by their teeth half up that mountainside.
Can you see them? Right of the old waste tip.
He brought them out to open it up again,
And that’s where he scraped, scratched, levered,
Reddled and bagged up for the winter
Those barrow-loads of semi-bastard coal
They make out came from the trucks.’ ‘Did they produce
Any of this in court?’ ‘How do we know?
They might have produced the head of Bindigard Brân.’
‘But surely there must be a corpus delicti?,
Somebody must shout “Stop thief” or “This is mine.”
If a man steals there must be something stolen.
Once it’s identified, its origin
Can be scientifically ascertained.’
‘Obviously, but a battering ram of reason
Shatters on the bastion of a policeman’s word.’
Black found a younger man, slightly familiar,
As he thought, from schooldays lower down the valley
And introduced himself, but was recognised.
‘I know you, Mr Black, and I know your father.
The Valley is up in arms. But what can we do.
They are wreaking vengeance on an honest man
Who took a check of the coal the combine
Stole from the miners.’ ‘Tell me,’ said Black
‘That tip in Gorsedd Brân. Is it still in use?’
‘Indeed, no. It’s abandoned these ten years,’
‘And what’s in it? Railway or naval coal?’
‘Mostly hards from the old two-foot mine
That got too tight a squeeze. They still work it
In some places – a back-twisting exercise,
Crawling, squirming, tough, shit-naked labour
Suitable for bankers and Prime Ministers
If they live to see hell and the good Lord
Doesn’t obliterate them body and soul
For the sake of the devil’s nostrils.’ ‘What’s in the trucks?’
‘Softs from the Elliot and Brithedir.’ ‘What?
A miner stealing coking coal for his fire?
He could put it out with water.’
‘So he could, but Inspector Blenkinsop
Is a Norfolk man, your typical Carn Sais.
To him coal is coal.’ ‘Let us educate him.
Could you get samples?’ ‘Yes. I know the chemist.
He was a young fellow at school with you.’
‘Tell him to keep them safe and certified,
And we’ll subpoena him for his protection.
We’ll drag him most unwillingly to court.’
Black’s heart was rising. He spoke to Hannibal
In the style of Sherlock Holmes to faithful Watson.
‘We’ll up to the top and sample it, then sample
Iorwerth’s scuttles, and I think we’ve got those bastards.’
Hannibal felt himself being caught up
In the euphoria of anarchy,
In the glorious sport of toppling stupid tyrants
And hailed surprisedly his enthusiasm,
As when a youngster suddenly discovers
He can ride a bicycle or think his own thoughts.
‘Few generations,’ he mused, ‘need I go back
To find the truth in my blood, though now indeed
I’m beginning to see that purpose is all
And the future the father of the present.’
On the way up Black went for pill-boxes
To a young pharmacist whose pale face
Shone blue when the sun struck through two bloated
Carboys of copper sulphate high in the window.
He refused payment. Black spoke to him in Welsh.
He closed his shop, got into Black’s car
And accompanied them to Heol yr Orsedd
To take specimens independently
And hastened back to his jeopardised business.
It was Ffloric Gach brought them
To where the men in tattered overalls
Cleaned the tip, and showed them
What Iorwerth had brought down.
Speaking of the pharmacist Black remarked,
‘There goes a highly dedicated person
Who does the right thing for the wrong reason.
The apotheosis of nationalism.
He sees Blenkinsop as the pestle of England
Pounding the pebbles of a small nation
To inconsequent powder. He is quite blind
To the finance-capitalist arm that wields it.
We were friends at school, but we differ
All along the line of magnitude.
His horizon is the freedom of Wales.
Mine encompasses the whole earth,
Bounced like a radio wave from cloud to cloud,
The only ultimate – world government.
Now, which of us is more realistic?’
‘I’ll get a microscope and find out.
But, size aside, he takes the lesser side.
At a pinch you can always get out of Wales.
Leaving the planet is a different matter.
Though it harboured the ultimate tyranny of time,
Much might be lost in the process. So give me
A complex world with nobody on top
And a comfortable balance of contraries.’
Soon man and wife came back. Iorwerth had stopped
At every shop, each terrace of cottages,
And bellowed, ‘Perjury! Perjury by the police.’
There was indignation but no surprise.
Carbines had lined these slopes. What was a lie
To strain at? ‘They let you go?’ said Black.
‘They bound me over to be of good behaviour.’
‘In the sum of what?’ ‘In the sum of a paltry shilling.
I said, “I’ve got no shilling.” “Never mind,”
Says the beak, “I think I can lend you one.
But,” he goes on, “if you hold seditious meetings
Stir up our idle hands to devilments,
Or tramp them into Cardiff for demonstrations,
That is a breach of your recognizance.
And you’ll be pulled in, penny, shilling or pound.”
“I’ll not sign,” I said. “No matter,” says the beak,
“We’ll sign for you”– Forge my signature! ”
‘Who was the judge and what was he getting at?’
‘He meant he had me on a tether. Stephens
Was his name, a so-called Labour man
Who used to be the reddest red in the valley
Till his kids needed jobs. I worked with him.
He must have had a fellow-feeling with rodents.
He used to feed them. A lover of animals!’
‘Would you risk an appeal?’ ‘If the party says so.
I’m due at the L.P.C. I’ll send word up.
Meanwhile the girls will see you well looked after.’
Ffloric went out for two pennorth of corned beef
To fete the distinguished visitors. They ate
Uncomfortably with knives worn concave
With endless stirring and aluminium forks
Pitted with oxidation and with bent lines.
Ffloric sat on an orange box to leave
The guests two of the three chairs. The wife
Cut bread and apologised for margarine.
The butter merchant hadn’t called today.
She strengthened the tea with pinches of cooking soda
And sweetened it with sticky condensed milk
Hannibal had heard of from MacParland.
They got it down, but ate without relish
Out of politeness, striving to keep hidden
The finicky revulsions of their class.
The message came. If money could be found
For a solicitor, Iorwerth was given
Authority to proceed. The prosecution
Was frivolous, the charge libellous,
The sentence illegal, and officers of the crown
Had conspired to dispense justice in a bag.
They would be grateful
For anything that Dr Black could do,
And would send a deputation to meet him.
E Dr Black on mental illness
‘Completely outrageous,’ Dr Black exploded,
When he learned the trial’s bizarre upshot.
‘Upon my word! Convicted of stealing coal
And bound over to refrain from politics!
Till that preposterous sentence is demolished
A convicted man becomes a social cipher.’
He was silent at dinner, though he did
Appropriate justice to his wife’s poached salmon,
Asparagus, aioli, courgettes
And tiny potatoes the maid had spent an hour
Scraping and scrubbing to be gobbled in minutes.
The boys were hungry too after their journey
And Hannibal thought, ‘How easy to be rebels
On our full bellies.’ The doctor nodded
When his wife said, ‘Lewis, you will do something,’
And over coffee outlined a rough plan
He would tell the delegates, when, having pushed
And pedalled their bicycles over the switchback
They sailed triumphantly down into town.
‘I think he should appeal against conviction,
And sentence as well if the two are possible,
In the meantime defy the gang. Blenkinsop
Won’t dare to touch him. He’s an O.B.E.
To bum for, and as for his worship Stephens,
There’s a bit of an election on in November.’
The doctor thumbed his diary but shut it
In disgust. ‘I’m like a tethered goat
Just out of range of the crisp grazing.
Listen, Price, will you do me a favour,
Even to the detriment of your plans.
Run into Cardiff tomorrow. Take my car.
Call on that young solicitor, Tecwyn Davies,
Who was a junior in Foolham and Phibbs,
As we used to call them in my young days.
He’s now on his own, a very good supporter
Of the Federation and a Rhondda miner’s son.
Tell him the story, and show him the samples.
And, Hannibal, will you swear an affidavit
As to what you saw when you looked into court?’
‘Of course, I will, but am I old enough?’
‘We’ll sort that out. But, Price, tell him this,
Tell him I’m good for an instant hundred pounds
To hold the line till the reserves come up.
If we don’t fight tyranny in small things
It will engulf us in great. I appreciate
You’ll not be able to take Hannibal
To Fishguard, but find a suitable train
At the general station and the fare’s on me.’
‘It is on no such person,’ said Hannibal,
‘Amn’t I good for a shove on liberty’s dray?
I’ll head for Heysham. I’ve seen enough here
To cure me of industrialism forever.’
Mrs Black brought out brandy from a press
And Rhiannon made another fleeting transit.
This time when Hannibal looked at her she looked back,
But she didn’t stay. ‘You dislike industry,’
Said Dr Black, ‘and understandably,
For I know you are a countryman yourself.’
(Hannibal regarded himself as a townsman,
But then there are towns and towns.)
‘You don’t like its muck and you don’t like its manners.
And though I was reared in it, neither do I.
It’s a giant untamed. Here’s an example.
I’ve got four hundred patients in my care,
And the county’s split along a north-south line.
We’re sitting in the agricultural east,
Today you went through the industrial west
And into the next county. Now, tell me
How many patients do you think I’ve got
From each hemisphere? What is the proportion?’
‘I’ll swear the country’s twice as sane as the town,’
‘No,’ said the doctor, ‘ninety-nine times.
I’ve four hundred and ninety-four from the soot
And only five from the sod.’ ‘Caution!,’ cried Black,
‘Remember the townies are more numerous.’
‘Not ninety-nine times so,’ insisted his father,
Who understood tendencies if not statistics.
Hannibal asked, ‘Do you reject heredity?’
‘I think it’s one thing. It’s the thing that gives
Its strength to the beam, but life imposes the load.’
‘Has this philosophy a bearing on treatment?’
‘Hardly a philosophy – rather a metaphor,
Though one that stands up well. The beam, of course,
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you,
Is the nervous system, dependent though that is
On the rest of the man, as he on the rest of nature.
This is what Hippocrátes classified.
And then I suppose you could catalogue stresses,
Pressures, such as the weight of drudgery,
Even the waging of an unjust war,
Seem to compact the mind. Very few people
Go barmy from fatigue. But tensions,
Especially those from too ardent self-love,
Can rip the psychological skeleton
Apart, except when it’s very well joined.
But everyone goes mad in his own way.
Disintegration proceeds from within.
Aesculapius is ever peripheral.
This is the fundamental fact of medicine
That should make doctors humble, but it doesn’t.’
‘What do you think of psychoanalysis?’
‘You can’t talk a hole out of a pint pot.
On the other hand it’s not total nonsense.
Tension is resolved in action. Therefore,
Bring trauma to the surface of the mind.
Psychoanalysis can help to do this
And point the road to action, to the accompaniment
Of plentiful ritual, what I like to call
The mumbo-jumbo of the well-heeled couch.
But any man can do it for himself
If he’s the necessary brains and energy.
It’s when he hasn’t he hires the psycho-quack,
Provided, of course, he has the money to pay him.
But enough of that. Hannibal, I’ll tell you
I came into this business during the war.
I didn’t agree with that, but I joined up
When a man suffering from bad shell-shock
Came home to the Rhondda. They’d packed miners
Off to Flanders, then found they’d no coal
To make their bombs, so they brought them back again.
Nobody in authority ever thinks.
Most could resume mining, this man couldn’t.
He stood on his wooden leg in an alcove
By the station, and patted children’s heads
When they passed on the way to school. Quite harmless.
But then he got a job in a forest nursery
And in six months he was a man again.
While I was medicating in the field
I saw many curious cases, and grew interested
In rehabilitation. In those days
I thought no brain could be cracked beyond repair,
Barring a bullet or decapitation,
And guessed that gardening might be therapeutic.
No doubt you spotted the currants and Eirin Main
I’ve left them there. But later I found out
That it isn’t the character of rural work
That gives the countryman stability,
It’s that everything grows, and he grows with it.
You can’t produce a thing like that in vitro,
So what did that leave me? Soporifics?
They’re the short road to unrefreshing sleep
From which natural curative dreams
Are banished. The human brain, you know,
Can do osteopathy on itself
And twist itself straight in a nightmare
When left to its own chemical devices.
That’s why I’m opposed to shock-treatments,
Kicking the engine when the car won’t go,
Shaking a stopped watch. That’s primitive.
But that apart, it was Freud’s nonsense
Set me on the course I’m now following.’
‘How?’ ‘I examined its inessential part
Looking for something concealed in the packaging
And asked myself a few essential questions.
Why must the paying client lie recumbent?
Why can’t it all be managed sitting up
Like a business deal between gentle-folk?
What’s all this theoretical hocus-pocus,
Swollen by Jung into a pseudology,
And why the apotheosis of sex?
It came to me one night as I read Fraser
That the daft accompaniments are the main thing.
Medical practice is irrelevant,
What we have is a ritual of rebirth.
Primitive man was born again and again.
He sloughed off his own bark like a plane tree.
But we are different. We have property
And it must be in the possession of one person.
“One man, one life” has to be the slogan
And so people can’t escape from themselves
And the sins of youth still torture in old age.
Now it was this that made me think of art.
It comes from work, but it is also ritual.
I’ll give you my theory. It is labour transformed
To serve the obstetrics of identity.’
‘That’s foxed you,’ murmured Price. ‘Till I hear more.’
‘And you will,’ said the doctor, and continued,
‘I’m sure you know all about catharsis,
Being a student of philosophy.
Well, Aristotle didn’t go far enough.
Drama not only cleanses, it replaces
And that’s true of all art – even music
Some believe void of intellectual content.’
‘How do you make that out?’ asked the sceptic,
Needless to say his son, who having heard it
Without genuflexion, was willing that his guest
Should make a bow. ‘Start with Terpsichore,’
Said Doctor Black, ‘Singing and dancing.
See the strong public element within it.
Now, ask what it stands for. You will need
To invoke the principle of symbolism
Through which the epiphenomenal adjunct
Stands for the whole. Right. What’s music
But the accompaniment of dance,
The element that synchronises movements
And preserves the common purpose? What’s dance
But a show of work without footpoundage?
So everything is a surrogate of labour.
Very well, if art contains the quiddity of work
Why burden the patient with the real thing?
– When I tried to bring dancing and singing
Into this mental hospital I was laughed at
From Newport Pagnell to Llanhadarn Fawr.
Some of my fellow-practitioners compared it
To “a Punch and Judy show in church”.’
‘When they saw the point then what did they say?’
‘Too expensive. If it’s a thousand pounds
To restore a human being’s unique mind,
Let it rot. If somebody can do it
For five hundred, give the philanthropist four
And tell him not to spend it all at once.’
And he showed Hannibal an article
Printed in a most prestigious journal
That argued a short way with senility.
‘Why pamper age with excess nourishment,
Amenity or public recognition,
Tempting the guest to linger before departure.
Let the reluctant nurse give the last injection
At the first excuse. She is a paid employee,
And has a duty to facilitate
The swift turn-round of corporation coffins
Twixt bed and furnace.’ ‘Satirical, of course.’
‘Not a bit of it. You don’t find satire
In the parthenon of medicine. These are findings
Of a commission set up by Parliament
And the finders found what they were meant to find.’
F Career choices
Hannibal had his way and went North.
With eyes sharpened to social vicissitudes
He drew a fellow-passenger’s attention
To slums in Salop further up the line,
Tattered bedraggled clothes lines
And ill-clad children sitting on doorsteps
With slabs of bread and dripping. ‘Terrible, sir!
And the worst of it all – this is what kills me –
It’s all their own fault, all their own fault.
The buggers won’t work.’ ‘I’m not sure of that,’
Said a portly gentleman with a vacuum flask.
‘Undoubtedly there’s overpopulation.
We need another war to weed them out.’
Home at last for more than a few days
Hannibal saw the unchangeable changing
On its own account and in the observer’s eye.
Uncle Tom, they said, ate less and slept more,
But still preserved the secret of his will.
The aunt had mellowed, his mother explained,
‘She takes a sip of his brandy now and then,’
And the parents laughed, though ’twas no laughing matter.
‘At this rate there’ll not be a farthing left,
Although there’s the farm.’ ‘Pooh,’ said Balfour,
‘Mortgaged to ruination, I’ll be bound.’
Meanwhile they visited from family duty.
‘What about the midnight compotations?’
‘If she fancies a dram,’ his mother told him,
‘She’s willing to get up for him. If not,
Russian artillery wouldn’t rouse her.’
But Miser Jim had died in his sleep and left
A hundred pounds to Emer MacParland.
‘You remember who she was?,’ his mother added,
‘That beggar girl I thought you a bit sweet on.
She won’t go begging now if she ever did.
I wouldn’t mind being left a hundred pounds.’
‘Don’t talk like that. You could easily make it happen,
And you’d have it on your conscience all your life.’
‘I don’t think wishes count, only actions.’
‘All the same, don’t say it. It’s not nice.’
He tracked down Lindsay Brown,
Fortune-hunting in haberdashery,
Lank, limp, pasty, pimpled and scrubbed
Like a butcher’s chopping block on a Saturday night,
With an obsequious stoop, and deprecating
Hands, hung like seal-flippers – One would not
Have thought this stance could be acquired so quickly.
‘I thought I’d get a better job than this,
Maybe selling radios or vacuum cleaners,’
He told Hannibal, ‘But I’ve laid my plans.
I’m going to marry MacTavish’s eldest daughter
And so inherit the business in due course.’
‘Have you asked her?’ ‘Not in so many words.
I wouldn’t want to do anything premature.
I’m anxious to marry her but not yet.’
Andrew, by contrast, shone with the brash polish
Of a coming young man. He wore a black jacket
And striped trousers his mother called
His ‘peppermint pants,’ after some pie-bald
Sweetmeats of those times; he carried
A brief-case and wore a bowler hat,
Drank in bars where luminaries
Of the legal profession eased their larynxes
And made himself as visible as he could.
‘I’m glad I wasn’t shunted into Queens,
To slouch through corridors in a white coat
Lugging an unwieldy microscope, and stuffing
My protesting head with bones, neurones,
Ketones and hormones. Oh! They wanted it.
But I told the Da it wouldn’t do for me,
“It’s possible you don’t know this,” I said,
And bear in mind he couldn’t carve a chicken,
“There are as many bones in a human body
As drops in a pint of stout. What’s more
A doctor must know where they all are,
And if he doesn’t, he’ll not make a penny.” ‘
‘Talking about anatomy,’ said Hannibal,
‘I know they’re probably not as numerous
As bones, barring you count pores, but there are
People baffled by orifices,’ and he told him
Of Clutterbrook’s party and the bewildered blackshirt.
Andrew laughed, but perfunctorily. His mind lit
On a more sinister aspect of the matter.
‘Politics to me is all pollywobble,
But it wouldn’t surprise me one little bit
If all this blackshirt business wasn’t traceable
To the Pope. Who was this fellow who started it
With a name reminscent of macaroni,
Who walked a raggle-taggle regiment
Fed on wild parnships into the heart of Rome,
Took over all the best restaurants
Drank wine toasts to the New Age,
And struck a shady bargain with the Vatican?
It’s all been back-scratching since then.’
‘I presume,’ said Hannibal, ‘You mean Mussolini.’
‘Probably,’ said Andrew, ‘But I’m told
That at the flicker of a priest’s black beret
He’d up and storm the Alps, sack fair Geneva
And feed old Calvin’s bones to Maltese puppies.
And more than that, if he were fit to do it,
He’d station warships off the Copeland Islands
For the bombardment of Belfast. Ach! Colqhoun,’
Andrew intoned in mock admonishment,
In which Hannibal caught a smack of envy
‘You’re on the edge of some queer company.
‘Tis well you didn’t admit to being a Prod,
Though I suppose in that mad atmosphere,
Amid the fuddle of phillyflattery,
Anything goes.’ Hannibal was not pleased.
Encouraged by the signs of irritation
Andrew went on, ‘I bet you’re churning out
Poetry by the imperial chaldron
Once a month when the muse is in heat
And you flaunt the appropriate regalia,
Draped round your neck, green, white and purple,
Unless the purple is a washed out red,
When all the rest of us are frizzling
Like Manx kippers in a bogman’s bothy.’
‘No more an affectation than your hat,
When your hair would stuff a cushion. But look,
I’ll come clean and tell you why I do it.’
‘Please, do.’ ‘ ‘Tis to set fools asking questions.’
Andrew laughed, his good humour undented
Even when the biter bit. ‘I’ll tell you what.
The Da says you are twice as clever as I,
But he knows which will be twice as prosperous.
I live and let live, look after number one,
And let someone else look after number two,
Though, mind, I never did anything
On anybody. If the tap runs and the bacon fries
I don’t ply the poor things with searching questions
Or try to tease from life what isn’t in it.
I spend all my money and mix with the right people.’
‘A modest attitude,’ said Hannibal,
‘Nevertheless you seem quite pleased with yourself.’
He took his leave and sauntered by the river
Where, even on a summer afternoon,
Bleak time intruded. The endless pastures
Of infant vision were three wet meadows
Now bristling white with drought and dissication,
The dreaded snake-trees goat-ravaged brushwood,
Grotesque but only from debility.
A snap in his mind told him he was grown up.
These places could never be the same to him.
Further illumination followed. Philosophy,
Viewed, so to speak in an astronomer’s mirror,
What was it all but phillyflattery,
Fungus on dead timber, masquerading
As good foliage? ‘And it took,’ he thought,
‘This amiable philistine to blow
The fluff from my brain. Philosophy!
It has nothing to do with understanding nature
And all to do with giving frauds a living.’
He dwelt on it ruefully and took a scunder
Against Fenchester and all its works and pomps.
The citizens of his consciousness stood up
And cried in unmistakable unison,
‘We are not going back to that bloody place.’
What was wrong with it? In their teaching
Its tutors showed reality reflected
In a mirror made of words; in their practice
They dealt with incoming currency directly,
And many cautious men sat on broad backsides
Humbly attending the acceptable day of the Lord
When someone senior to themselves would snuff it
And the ugly iron leads that tethered them
Would plate with gold. Hasty conclusions?
Had youth no haste age would not stir at all.
Hannibal considered mathematics –
A monkish pastime; ancient history –
A fable disagreed on; medicine –
Too messy, he hadn’t the stomach for it;
What about law? – perhaps a rideable ass.
‘Don’t worry, Hanny my boy,’ his father said,
‘I’ll see you through and when I’m doddering
You can dodder a bob or two back across the channel
If I need it, or your mother for that matter.
So go over and have a look round. See
What’s available and what you want to do.
I’m glad you’ve dropped that temerarious notion
Of going into the kirk. With all this atheism
Going about, faith’s at a woeful discount.’
And he told him he was going ‘off the road,’
Having met an American on holiday,
A man in touch with famed Scotch-Irish,
Who had offered him a pig’s back contract
With a sound-track firm in Kalamazoo
Who would record twelve Scottish sermons
And sell the resultant discs
From Pennsylvania to Hudson’s Bay.
‘That,’ he said, ‘will be truly spreading the word
And mine will be the voice.’ ‘Yes,’ said his wife,
‘Many a year you spent gurning for a pulpit.
Now you’ve a pianola one with punched-in prayers.’
‘You’ll spend the money it brings,’ Balfour retorted,
But in the midst of gratitude the thought flashed
Through Hannibal’s mind that perhaps the colporteur
Was a bit of a humbug and his mother knew it
And kept him on the ground with sly leg-pulls.
Whatever of that, there was no real harm in him.
A letter came from Black. The old professor
Had called him into his room, praised his results,
For which no doubt the appropriative mechanism
Was already in place, and commented favourably
On the business-like arrangement of his thesis.
He then told him with brisk decisiveness
He’d get no backing for any appointment
In Fenchester or Cherwell. ‘To be frank, Dr Black,
You’ve led two lives very successfully,
This of the scientist, that of the romantic
Fomenter of social revolution
That couldn’t do you the slightest scrap of good.
Which rôle will finally engulf the other
Don’t ask me, but I tell you, if ever
Your principles of government were in vogue
We should be in the mines. Now listen to me,
You would be there as well.’ But he also said
There was a job as a chemist going in Egypt
For which, at the risk of his reputation
As a ‘safe man’ he would recommend him.
‘So,’ wrote Black, ‘He also was prepared
To live two lives. I have to go. I need
A start, wherever it is. But the old man
Is disappointed. He wants to set me up
In some enquiry he’s got funding for
Into the germanium content of coal.
It seems to accumulate in soot
And according to some medic’s cock-eyed theory
Is sending chimney cleaners off their rockers.’
G The Egyptian
Hannibal went back to Fenchester early
To retrieve his ill-shot arrow from its oak
And to catch Black before he took up duty
Exhibiting the uncanny dexterities
Of the soul-less occident
Among the sons of Rameses and Thoth.
On arrival he went to the laboratory
Black had vacated and found Shenouda,
Shock-headed dago with a sensitive face
And the colonial’s demure authority.
‘He’s going to work in Egypt where I come from,
Spreading technique among the lesser breeds
In the noble cause of internationalism.
It is a noble cause, most profitable
If yours is the nation with the upper hand.
It is different medicine for the under-dog.’
‘Why so?’ asked Hannibal.
‘To begin with, your acknowledged head of state,
Presumed to epitomise the popular will,
Operates mainly as a hand-press
Embossing documents for foreigners.
These buy and sell and come and go as they please.
When they go they take contracts and dividends.
When they return they bring policy guidelines
And the habits of the lands of good life.
Everyone wants to live as the gentlemen live
And adopt their fashions, suitable or not
To climate, tradition or good policy,
Discarding with feigned disgust accompaniments
Of oriental poverty. In this spirit
The Turkish govenrment abolished the fez
And told them to wear bowlers or Derby hats.
People who couldn’t afford went bare-headed
And had to keep out of the sun. With us too,
If any of our young men wants to get on
From morn to eve his mind must eye the sunset.
The very letters T- L, Italy, Atlas,
Signify in Accadian the death of the sun,
So here am I, wearing a white coat,
No Coptic robes, a qualified chemist
Ready, available, genuinely seeking work.
And what work will I do? That I can tell you.
I’ll be an export clerk in my father’s warehouse
Keeping an eye on imported chemicals,
Dealing with such essential questions
As availability, substitute and price,
And when he dies I will be the owner,
Which is no penance, but what if I had dreams
Of enhancing the virtue of the Nile flood,
As long as they allow the river freedom,
By lacing the water at some vital point
With phosphates or trace elements, promotive
Of fertility? What if I favoured
Reasoning against these preposterous dams
That are talked about, and wanted to say
Slow trickles lead to high salinities,
Who would listen to the warehouseman?
I tell you there’s no interest in fellaheen.
Everything is predicated on business,
Though not our business, the foreigners’ business.
Born horsemen, one time lords of the desert,
Wax fat as hippos in plush limousines
While blind beggars, obolary
As Belisarius after his disgrace,
Are robbed for the price of their pus-stained bandages.
And so you see, Mr Colqhoun,
There is internationalism up
And internationalism down,
And I say that as a forgiving Christian.
My father spent years in the British Service
And I know your language better than my own.’
‘Surely,’ said Hannibal, ‘there’s an internationalism
Of equality.’ ‘I can conceive of it
Between nations equally impoverished,
Neither with anything to quarrel about.
I never met it, or indeed heard of it.
National oppression is the root to slavery.
That’s one of the things Mr Black doesn’t know.’
‘So you think Black shouldn’t go to Egypt?’
‘It’s not his choice. What can he do here?
He’s a man who’s talked himself into trouble.
If he starved would I be better off?
I wish him well and think he’ll come back wiser.
If you see him tell him I wish him well.
He would like to have talked me into trouble,
But I told him, in any country of the Levant
You’re either propertied or penniless
And that position is fixed from outside.
The romance of intellect does not exist.
It only flourishes
Where the slave has not consented to his slavery.’
H The party meeting
Hannibal followed one clue after another
And ultimately traced Black to a meeting
In an inconceivably dingy L-shaped room
In the building where the spiritualists met,
Let out for three and sixpence by the assigns
Of a long defunct society students called
The National Amalgamated Union
Of Operative Candlestick Makers,
Dippers, Oilsters, Tallow and Wax Artificers,
Established in the days before gas.
The chairman sat obliquely in the angle
So as to be able to command
Two independent audiences
Should the room be full. By the door Black
Sat modestly at a table piled with pamphlets.
But who was that but Branton by the wall?
That he was not surprised to see Branton
Seemed natural. What was not so natural
Was that Branton was not surprised to see him.
He sat down, though he had not intended to stay,
Having merely sought a rendezvous with Black
To learn first hand the tale of his emigration
And possibly the fate of Iorwerth Williams.
But grave matters were in vehement dispute.
Who willingly turns his eyes from a fight or a fire?
Hannibal resolved to hear the issue out.
Two members of the ‘Local Party Committee’
Had ranged the rank-and-file in rival camps
Upon a somewhat speculative question.
Euonymus Peak accused Simon Palaster
Of ‘deviating.’ (‘That must be serious,’
Thought Hannibal.) He had said in the bar
Of the Running Horse that the dictator Hitler
Might prove to be ‘objectively progressive.’
By reducing capitalism to one head
The working class could slice off at a stroke.
This was a dangerous fallacy. Had not
The Central Committee clearly laid it down
That Fascism, and Social-Fascism too,
For they were prickles on the one thorn bush,
Were absolutely and totally reactionary?
‘I’m not saying they’re not,’ rejoined Palaster,
‘But you have to learn to think dialectically.
The inevitable stages must be gone through,
Then, at a certain point, maybe through war,
Or a currency crisis, we find a cleft in the rock
Through which the proletariat can march
To victory. The night is over. Capitalism
Is replaced by Socialism.’ ‘March, did you say?
Whom will you march? Cohorts of dead men?
For that’s what Hitler has us all ticked off for.’
‘War will not exterminate everybody
And the last two were followed by revolution.
Birth is afoot. Why barricade out the midwife?’
‘Because there’s another better and cheaper midwife.’
‘Her name, pray?’ ‘Public democracy.’
‘A tattery whore if you ask me what,
Licking her pox in Westminster gas-works.
I refer of course to the bourgeois variety.’
‘You’re bourgeois yourself, for all your fancy talk.’
‘So are three quarters of us in this room.’
The impartial chairman judged this the right moment
To call upon the district visitor
To state the party line, and he got up.
But already Mrs Shipman had seized the floor
And held it, chairman or no chairman,
Till she had had her say. ‘I want to know,’
She said, ‘Before some London intellectual
“Lays down,” as the saying goes, that there is ice
At the north pole, where were our wonderful men,
What happened to them at Saturday’s bazaar?
No, comrade chairman, I can’t raise it later.
I’m a working housewife, as the saying goes.
I have to go back home and make the supper.
My old man comes off shift at half past nine.
That’s why he can’t be here. It’s now or never,
As the saying goes. I ask them straight where were they?
Where was the mountain peak and his three white elephants
Sniffing the clouds? Where was my old pal Lustre,
The man with the answers?’ Peake shuffled.
‘Maybe we left a bit before we should.’
‘Indeed, you left a bit before you got there,
Into the arms of Bacchus, as the saying goes.’
The women, she said, had slaved like Zanzibar coolies,
Baking scones, cookies, turn-overs, shortbread,
Pasties, custards, bunloaves and Lancashire parkin,
Not to mention rhubarb jam with ginger in it,
Cauliflower pickled in hot mustard sauce
And peach chutney. Members of the committee
Who deigned to come into the humble schoolroom
Were not above a lick or crumb, indeed,
Nor a sandwich. But they soon betook themselves
‘Over the road,’ as the saying goes, ‘over the road’
To drown the hammer and sickle in small beer
And argue revolution. While they were there
Deviating and straightening each other out
Like an army of worms crossing a cinder path,
A pimply young devil and former blackshirt
Got in and grabbed an old age pensioner’s bag
Containing fifteen shillings and eightpence ha’penny.
The men were sent for but not one came.
They had ‘reached a crucial point in their discussion,’
They were on to something that would split the branch.
‘No, comrade chairman, I’ll sit down when I’m finished.
What’s the use of talking about great things
When you can’t handle small?’ ‘Pooh,’ said Branton,
‘Is that what it’s all about? Fifteen shillings?
I’ll pay that, out of my own pocket.
Do I give it to Comrade Shipman?’ ‘I don’t want it.
Give it to the party if you have it to spare.
We made a collection while you were drinking.’
‘Drinking!’ said Branton, ‘I was in my shop.’
The impartial chairman said ‘Deplorable,’
In a voice that sighed with the sadness of the age,
And each contestant thought his cause upheld,
Or at least not pointedly rejected.
The district visitor then described Fascism
As a door to darkness. ‘Nobody chooses death,’
He said, ‘for the sake of resurrection.
Best stay as long as you can on the safe
Side of the grave. And as for war how can one
Proclaim with certainty it will bring revolution?
Evil is evil. Do not speculate
About it, fight it. Any good that comes
Will come from that, and not from speculation.’
‘Hear, Hear,’ said Black, and started the applause.
Peake and Palaster said they were reconciled,
And everybody clapped. Hannibal too,
Even though he had nothing to do with it.
I The Branton Codex
It was this week that Hannibal afterwards
Remembered for the first intimations
Of an adult competence. He felt as if
His feet found rock at the bottom of his mind,
On which he could stand firm and view the world,
Though nothing in particular had happened.
He dropped in several times to talk with Branton.
Who, unusually for him, had purchased
Remaindered volumes of the less known stories
Of an American novelist said to be
Simultaneously social and psychological.
‘He’s not bad,’ he said, ‘He seems to have read old Veblen.
He tells one tale of an ageing millionare
Returned nostalgically to the noodles
And blood sausage of his impecunious youth,
Who thirsts for immortality. He orders
A coffin of solid gold inlaid with gems
And builds himself a marble mausoleum
Where his clapped-out remains will lie in storage
Unputrified, thanks to six nuzzling jets
Of liquid nitrogen. Packing of powdered ice
Protects his frame from bruising by the metal,
And there he’ll linger till the penultimate trump
Is blown by elephants of advancing science,
When the rich will be raised incorruptible
For another stint of Bolls and bolognese.
Who knows how many times it could go on
While the white-coated custodians know their place
And nobody has suborned the armed guard.
He doesn’t expect the miracle to happen,
But after lying for money, cheating for money,
Murdering for money, he will show the world
That he has money, and consequently
Can back the slimmest of all possible chances,
Squandering totally without a trace of reason.
A pitiful jest with death! I showed it Black,
But he wouldn’t borrow it. “Fiction,” he says,
“Records the fantasies of the ruling class,
Their mating behaviour, futile sex-play,
And upward progress in the pecking order,
And those who write it for the most part
Are scientifically illiterate
And don’t know a porwiggle from a milk churn.”
Now what in heaven’s name is a porwiggle?’
‘That aside do you think he can have read
Enough to make these magisterial judgements?’
‘Whether they’re sound or unsustainable,
I’d say he has. He keeps a tidy bookshelf.
He has Haeckel, Eddington, Winwood Reade,
Freud, whom he now calls “fraud,” Kapital,
But beside them sit the Mabinogion,
Shakespeare, Shelley, Blake, Swift
And the complete works of Dostoyevsky.’
‘The devil they do! The soul of certainty
Hooked on the embodiment of doubt!’
‘I have long admired his confidence in action,’
Said Hannibal, ‘I don’t know how he acquired it.
You’ll not agree with me . . . You share his dogma . . .’
‘Deny yourself,’ said Branton, ‘but carry on . . .’
‘Well, is it possible for part of the mind
To go to war with the rest, conquer it,
Imprison it and call the result peace?’
‘Well, I suppose there could be
A dictatorship of the mental proletariat.’
He took the book, read it, and brought it back
A few days later. ‘Yes, it is good satire
On a vacuous and venal society.
The Americans glory in their vices.
Here all’s beslobbered with hypocrisy.’
Branton was summoned to the telephone,
And it was then that Hannibal observed
Two elderly dark figures
Examining parchment in the bas fond.
The assistant nodded in their direction –
‘Two professor fellows down from London.
Mr Branton bought some papers in Spain.
Falling to pieces they were, rotten with value,
And the colour of mouldering cider apples.
He thought he had a discovery, but these two
Think there may be something fishy about them.
Him on the far side, he’s a physicist.
He’s invented a special electric nose
That smells out at the toss of a button
The exact age of anything on paper,
Indeed, much more than that, the maiden name
Of the bodikins that wiped his arse on it.
The other man, him with his back to us,
He’s what they call a paleographist,
Who fiddles about with ancient writing
And if he sees some squiggle on a squoggle
As big as a nit in the hair of a junior boy.
He’ll say, and swear in court, and be believed
By the impartial Judge and learned counsel
Of both sides, “This drooping script
Positively identifies Iscariot,
While these were penned in a nineteenth century jail,
Despite superficial similarities” –
And everybody afraid to shout, “Sez you!”
They’d make a formidable battery.
One squint or half a sniff is all that’s needed
To drag your guilty secrets out of you
And scatter them for the world to laugh at.
They’re doing this for some big library.
It’s all part of beating the price down.
I hope they’re foiled for Mr Branton’s sake.
He’s a fair boss, though he could pay better.’
Hannibal eyed them with a slight distaste.
They had an unpleasant air of competence.
One looked up, and the other looked round,
Startling him as recognition
Rapidly ran through its stages.
Moreover it was mutual. The man rose
And climbed falteringly the rheumaticky steps
Into the front shop and greeted
His former pupil with cordiality.
‘Methuselah!’ Hannibal exclaimed,
Then, embarrassed, prepared to apologise.
But Cowan laughed. ‘Don’t mention it at all.
Human nature wishes us to live long.
But what’s the end of that but being old?
Can you afford resentment when the world
Compliments you on what you have achieved?
Mind you, it doesn’t take all that long.
You could do worse than start thinking now
How you propose to dodge the same dilemma.’
Hannibal said he had started and they both laughed.
‘Strange to meet you here!
That man below, handling the microscope,
In hiding from the blinding solar peril,
Is my old fellow-student Sonnenschein.
His first name’s Hillel. That’s the same thing,
But also the name of an ancient teacher
We both followed but fell by the road.
He is a man whose brains were in demand
Throughout Europe, at least till recently.
Now he’s not thought politically kosher.
He lectures at a part-time evening college
But he has a laboratory and that suits him.
In Paris he worked with Langevin and the Curies,
In Germany – what was the name of the man? –
Max Planck. He knew Einstein in Switzerland
Though they were both young fellows at the time.
He had more brains than I. Better still.
They were not frittered away on propaedeutics,
Following a repetitive annual round.
So he shines by his own light, fitfully
Maybe, but he discharges novelties
Into the world and justly earns his fame,
While we unnamed, unnumbered and ignored,
Lack even the pasty glint
Of a third class asteroid. Do you know
What we do? I’m sure you don’t. I’ll tell you
We pass received error down the ages.
My teacher taught me Menenius Agrippa;
You remember that nonsense about the belly,
Obviously satirical, as holy writ.
Do they apply that principle to the brain?
I learnt this by experience,
Truth is powerless against interest.
It pops up with an occasional challenge
But everything’s settled by expediency,
Even the last minute before an earthquake.
But to hell with that. Will I introduce you?’
‘I would be highly honoured.’ Hannibal
Was not quite sure what he was let in for,
But thought it would do no harm. ‘Moreover,’
Said Cowan, ‘I’ll take the thing one better.
When she emerges from among the timbers
Like a lily pushing its hard head
Through the soft leaves, you’ll meet his daughter.
She’s of your age and if I’m not mistaken
Will make her mark. Yes. Strange to meet you.
I always thought you might have something in you.
I had myself, but it couldn’t just get out.
I suppose you know I left Lauderdale suddenly?’
‘Indeed I do. I got the blame for it.’
‘In God’s name why?’ ‘Ach. Don’t pursue it.
It was the silliest nonsense in the world.’
‘I’ll tell you what happened. I despised teaching,
Although at times I was near enjoying it.
This was the essence of the thing.
I had a family to bring up,
But stayed on longer out of comfy sloth.
Billings would say, “Another year won’t hurt you.
What harm is there in a decent pension?”
“No harm,” I’d answer, “but there’s also no harm
In cheating the grave.” But all the same I’d stay.
Well admittedly I promised to go back,
But my wife died in a coach crash near Munich
And Garstony invited me to Jericho
To look at some inscriptions he’d unearthed.
I wrenched myself free from the cult of mourning
And resolved on an adventurous old age.
I called on Billings and explained it to him.
But nothing that I said could hit the target.
Freedom meant nothing to him, so
We parted without blessing or farewell.’
‘Then I guess what ensued,’ said Hannibal,
‘He just shut his gob and let rumour rip,
And rip it did, riotous and unrestrained.’
‘Very likely. He was that sort of man.
Anyway, when I got back, Sonnenschein
Manoeuvered me into the Museum
And that’s where I met Branton. He brought in
What seemed a most important document,
A goatskin scroll, purporting
To be a contemporary protest
By Jews against the crucifixion
Of the man Christians call Christ,
But the Jews called Joshua bar Abbas.’
‘Barabbas? You don’t suggest they were one man?’
‘The Romans doubled them up and the ruse worked.
The invaders became the impartial tertium quid
And the Jews were blamed for murdering their own.
Century after century it rolled on.
Whenever a pogrom required excusing
The cry went up, “The Jews crucified Christ”.’
‘Is that what they are saying in Germany?’
‘No, curiously enough. Sonnenschein
Is on a committee that cares for refugees,
Now a fair trickle and we expect a flood.
Without him some of the cream of Europe
Would be exchanging fleas on the Embankment.
According to what most of them say,
The Nazis don’t use Christian arguments,
But that makes it worse, not better.
They talk in terms of a submerged tenth,
Halfway between man and the animals,
Whose brutish hands imprison German gold
As a prelude to the slitting of German throats.
‘Tis not the food of an occasional riot,
But a prelude to mass expropriation
In which I fear much violence. Fear!
That is the lot of the Jew throughout the ages.
Were we top dogs could we display forgiveness?
History may yet perform that experiment.
But, Hannibal, let’s wet tea on it.
You’ll join us? Good. I’ll inform Sonnenschein
And he can follow with his bella donna.’
A Sphinxy riddles
Ensconced in a tea-shop, the benign fumes
Of a Himalayan blend warming his nostrils,
Hannibal told Methuselah the story
Of his developing distaste and sudden
Revulsion from the subject of his studies.
Philosophy, he said, now put him in mind
Of Miser Jim’s two cats, ferociously
Revolving in a war that came to nothing,
While others stole what they were fighting over.
‘I came,’ he said, ‘not to classify error
But to find truth.’ ‘Yes,’ said the older man,
‘But it’s not available.’ ‘That I found out.’
‘They’ll never get it. I doubt if it’s one thing,
Though Sonnenschein says he thinks it is.
The latest is that weight is really magnetism.
Or say, the two both come from something else.
I haven’t a head for scientific puzzles,
But if everything’s one why is there such variety?
Do you know what I’m not far from believing?
Many who pass for fundamental thinkers
Are fooling with fundamental fiddlesticks.
What could you call them? Taxidermists trying
To skin a ferret.’ Hannibal recalled
The triad of riparian conundrums
Attercliffe either couldn’t or wouldn’t resolve.
‘There might be an answer,’ said Methuselah.
‘Here’s Sonnenschein. We’ll ask him his opinion.
If he can’t answer well then nobody can.’
But the sage had his own preoccupations.
‘Patti has gone to Folkestone’s for some books.
She will be here in minutes. Do you know
I’ve a hunch that Branton has found something.
He’s found the goose that lays the platinum eggs.
We’ll have photographs made tomorrow.
You’re pretty satisfied with the lettering,
And I’ve scraped some fibres for analysis.
Within a week we’ll have an approximate date.’
‘Are you sure that hope doesn’t kindle expectation?’
‘By no means sure. But what have you in mind?’
‘Only to be careful. It’s a big thing
To ask of ancient history that it should
Rectify the imbalances of our age
By telephone across the centuries.
Caution is called for in the presence of miracles.
And you know as well as I,
No matter how they came, in a coster’s knapsack
Or some sea-faring pilgrim’s abandoned trunk,
These scrolls, if genuine, annihilate
Those hackneyed catchcries of goy pogromists.
For the Jews revolted against Pilate
And we have it on the evidence of a Greek.
But if anyone should prove them forgeries
That is another leather for our backs.’
‘Yes, I agree. But any research worker
With the gift of luck, knows what he wants to find,
And looks for that first. Out of disappointment
Arise alternative discoveries,
Unimaginable but for the false start.
Ask yourself this interesting question –
Did the Arabs learn from Greece or from Egypt?
I have a rough outline in my mind
Of a preferred scenario – a journey
From Palestine to Alexandria,
Then carried west upon the camels of Islam,
And held for posterity by the Moors of Spain,
That nation of scholars who gave us numerals,
Algebra, and the names of the fixed stars,
And suffered a penalty paid by many
Who stayed half clean through the spatter of time’s muck.
But here’s another thing. This fellow Branton
Isn’t just the go-getting businessman.
He’s a good deal deeper coloured than pale pink
And says if he’s got money to throw away
He’ll throw it, and has half-promised
To fund our rescue work. I told him what
We want is a young fellow with good German,
Presentable looking and preferably a gentile.’
‘But he might give the whole proceeds to his party.’
‘He might,’ said Cowan, ‘but you know the saw,
“Money makyth man,” and if he got it
He might sell up and go on a mighty binge
Of libidinous abandon in the South Seas.
What would you have to say if that happened?’
‘I’ve seen things just as queer, and I recognise
That a shot of ballast can start a list to starboard
In the most stable of craft. Hm, we should try
For his commitment now. What about saying
We’ve found a suitable man we’d like to hold?
You don’t know German, do you, Mr Colqhoun?’
‘Indeed I do,’ Hannibal replied.
‘Did I rightly understand that you have finished
Your studies and are looking out for something?’
‘Finished, indeed. I’ve not even begun,
And my mind’s as barren as an ill-ploughed field
Where anything will grow that can get in.
And worse than that, I don’t know what I want,
But all the same I go on wanting it.’
‘In that case,’ said Sonnenschein, ‘Why not take
A sabbatical year till you make up your mind?
We’ll say to Branton, we have a young man
Who’s interested but wants to know if it’s firm.
That’s a white lie with a gilt edge.’
At that moment Patti herself appeared,
The dazzling health of youth heightened by haste.
She seemed to Hannibal to exhale
Into the prosaic air a world of drama,
Occasion and romance. For such age levies
Robes, medals, speeches, bottles of champagne
And solemn empty music on the organ,
But two young people get it all for nothing,
And don’t even think to thank God.
‘Hill,’ said Cowan, ‘a quiver of questions.
Mr Colqhoun once took it on himself
To ask his tutor what he couldn’t answer,
Three sphinxy riddles.’ He recited them.
‘Not too difficult,’ Sonnenschein replied.
‘Mr Colqhoun, I offer my solutions.
First point first. Our personal existence,
Though it seems to us the one reality,
Is the child of chance. But that somebody
And something must exist is necessary.
By necessary I mean unavoidable.
Nature draws lots and we are the lots drawn,
One thing being certain, we can never
Be drawn again. Those who are not drawn
Resume their previous state of non-existence
Unaware of their rejection in the ballot.
Those drawn grow like bay trees and develop
Their human form, a brain, then consciousness
That lasts the season. Then they join the others
In the common nullity of everything dead.
Now, had another applicant been lucky
The individual inheriting the name,
Instead of a philosophical young man,
Might have been a prize-fighter, a chess-master,
A giant, a dwarf, or even a Siamese twin
And your consciousness would not have existed.
Each temporary survivor bears its capsule
Of identity, unique, unrepeatable,
A vortex, if you like, in the temporal stream.
But there’s one sure thing, no stream no vortex.
Now to the second question.
Everything was needed to make each of us.
If you like to push it to the ultimate,
The whole of history, the whole universe
With its million million twirling galaxies
Teeming fire into emptiness, some of which
Can reach us, all of that indeed,
Plus that stroke of luck.
In such conditions we’re not liable
For ancestral torts. What bit of your father
Are you the child of? Whatever he does now
When he’s gone he won’t wake up and settle
Your fines for speeding. The biological lottery
Protects the integrity of all parties,
Brings down a stout portcullis
Between generations, and armour-plates
Our separate identities, fore and aft,
With special limitations. So, for the third,
Act in accordance with the totality
Of your experience, such as it is,
And thereby widen it.’ Hannibal felt
Illuminated, but yet a bit let down,
For the final advice, taking it all in all,
Was only Attercliffe’s. ‘But by no means,’
Said Sonnenschein. ‘He said chase your whatsits
Wherever they’re going. I say use your brain
And choose for good or ill. One of the world’s
Greatest thinkers looked forward to the time
When man would tackle his predicament
With his sober senses, and so make of it
The utmost of its possibility.’
‘Epicurus,’ ‘I might have mentioned him.
By the same token I could have mentioned
Voltaire, but the man I had in mind was Marx.
Still, it’s no matter what lamp shines it,
It is the brightest wisdom known to man.’
‘So wisdom’s realm is practice!’ Hannibal
Knew this but now knew it a new way.
As well as individual wisdom
There was corporate wisdom,
Never yet achieved, without which, no doubt, man
Could perish or return to the forests.
‘What about knowledge?’ he asked Sonnenschein,
‘And what about the validity of thought?’
‘Strongest when nearest to its origins.
The further it strays from the homely cabbage patch
The more sense gives place to speculation
And the ulterior language of “as if”.
Not even Einstein can form a mind-picture
Of the space of at least four dimensions.
We must assume in face of the plain fact
That the heavens look similar in all directions.’
‘Couldn’t we just happen to be in the middle?’
‘We might, but as the Scots say, it’s verra dootful.
Mind, you could say the thing was infinite,
So everyone could have his own pet centre.
But that’s irrelevant nonsense.
Infinity has got no physical meaning.
Neither has zero if you think of it,
But mathematics furnishes the means
Of analysing the cosmic illusion,
Even though our eyes remain unsuited
To scanning the far boundaries of creation.’
‘Aha,’ said Cowan, ‘and from what you tell me,
You’re little happier with the fine print.
Weren’t you telling me last time we met
There’s a monkey-puzzle in every smithereen?’
‘Of course there is. Mr Colqhoun, doubtless
You read Kant. You noticed all the things
He calls apodictic are tautologies.
You remember the prolegomena?
Seven and five make twelve. Of course they do.
They were put in place to do precisely that.
The names of integers are in prescribed
But arbitrary sequence. He thought space
And time nothing but the forms of thinking,
And in his time nobody sought to ask
Where man acquired them. It is clear now
They come from action in the middle distance
In which the human animal learned to survive.
He had to aim his javelin in a forest
Where space was rectilinear and time brief.
He was a Newtonian before Newton
And lived in a world of s = vt.
He never holidayed on Mars or Uranus
Or went out hunting on a comet’s back.
If Australopithecus had geometrised
On Riemann’s model, the breed would have died out.
To be honest, our worthy remote ancestors
Bequeathed to us an instrumentation
Inadequate for our later purposes,
So proving the psalmist right to set us
Below the angels but a cut above dogs.’
And he said something about the ten-fingered abacus
Of the jungle monitoring the death of time.
But finally he said, ‘Einstein will be back
Next week. If you’re interested,
I’d get you a ticket for the Albert Hall.
You know it. No? Meet Patti at Knightsbridge.
I’m sure she won’t mind.’ Patti said she wouldn’t.
At this point Hannibal couldn’t believe his luck.
How could this jigsaw world drop into such place?
B Patti Sonnenschein
The ticket came. The day of Black’s departure
They met at Fenchester’s one platform station
And talked their way to London. Hannibal
Told him about Patti, ‘a very nice girl’,
Adding by the way, ‘One of my names is Patrick.’
‘Love at first sight,’ Black teasingly informed him,
‘Comes not from synonym but sense of smell.
Some body odour fits like a key in a lock,
Sets every gland and hormone working flat out,
And the marriage is only rubber-stamped in heaven.’
Hannibal scorned such premature assumptions.
All he had said was she was a nice girl,
Which she was. Black could slake animal heat
Among the nymphs of Cairo and Kantara
If he were interested in such things.
‘I’m not,’ he said, ‘If you want the short of it
I’m going away and I don’t want to go,
Not even for Helen of Troy, but I’ve got to do it
Or bum on the old man, not financially
Exactly, but on his influence.
I know it’s daft. Rhiannon says to me,
“You’re choosing voluntary rustication
Out of absurd pride.” But there it is.
Alea iacta est, and away I go.’
So there was pride, conspiring with self-pity,
Each making the other worse. He was decisive
Fighting for others. On his own behalf
He was only stubborn. Hannibal recalled
The picture ‘Chacun sa chimère’ and set
Black on one of its stark pinnacles,
Moreover told him, but he just laughed.
He saw him to St Pancras, had a drink
And left the small man with the vast rucksack
To make his unwilling way to Tilbury.
Patti was at Knightsbridge and on time.
Over multicoloured mountains of ice-cream
Dressed with the condiments most condign to youth,
They discussed the consequences of Branton’s
Discovery which was now authenticated,
And, said Patti, discredited Joséphus,
Who must have suppressed it, as a tool of Rome.
‘My God!’ she said, ‘The enduring infamy
Of Rome. What devils they were. One day of anger,
There wasn’t a decent stick of timber left.
All had been cut for the work of crucifixion.
I have often wondered how Christians
Can venerate that obscene token
The crucifix, exhibiting as a warning
The punishment of Spartacus and the slaves
Who rose for freedom. Your children
Brandish it like a rattle or a windmill.
They don’t look at it. I do, and I see
The symbol of an ultimate degradation.
In this sign the whipped slave embraces death.’
The waiter passed. Hannibal said to Patti,
‘We’ll have another “Knickerbocker glory?”‘
Which in due course came. ‘Miss Sonnenschein,’
He said, ‘You characterise the crucifix
As a symbol of the acceptance of death.
Now I was not brought up to revere it,
Not in a special way. On my mother’s side
There was a touch of unitarianism,
But it may have had a rebellious origin,
Among slaves who remembered Spartacus.’
‘I prefer to regard it as a death-wish,
And I hate death although I don’t fear it,
And I know there’s no such thing, although there’s dying.’
Hannibal took refuge in grim persiflage
‘Dying must be a most deflating experience,
Especially if you have to travel third class,
And nobody lives to give an account of it.’
Suddenly Patti asked him,
‘Would you die for a cause?’ ‘Well, I might
Perhaps, if I had to. I’d not look for it.’
‘So you’re not a hero.’ ‘If looking for trouble
Is heroic, I’m not. No, I’m not even a fool,
Though perhaps I should leave others to judge of that.’
She then told him about her elder brother
Who was carrying messages across Europe
For German communists trying to preserve
Their organisation under the heel of Hitler.
‘Are you a party member?’ she then asked.
‘I’m not. Black tried to talk me into it –
That’s the man I came up with in the train –
But I doubt if anything explains everything.
I suspect Black does and thinks he knows what it is.
Perhaps if I come to London I may join,
But I’ll have to do a little reading first.’
‘You think you may come? The Branton codex
Will fetch ten thousand pounds. He’s promised
To give us one of them.’ ‘A pound or a thousand?’
‘Thousand of course. You joke like an English schoolboy.
There’s no place for laughter amid serious things.’
Hannibal was surprised at her vehemence
And sensed a cultural-political hiatus
Like that that yawned between him and Shenouda.
On the islands youth could fool about and play;
On the continent, even in France,
Babies were born adult into the world.
They walked down Kensington Road. Late summer
Burned in October in that tropical year.
Scents of dry sward mingled with petrol fumes.
Not a leaf had fallen. All was affluent bustle
And moving lights at the centre of civilisation.
Notwithstanding all evil presages,
The age of comfort was to last for ever.
Hannibal thought to himself, ‘This buzzing hive
Must be one home, for it is never still,
And just think of the people that are in it.’
Clumsily he tried to approach Patti:
‘Miss Sonnenschein, I think we share a name.
One of my names is Patrick.’ She was puzzled
And looked at the sky. The star Arcturus
Glowed unwinking above the zodiacal light,
But conveyed nothing. Then the thought struck her.
‘Mr Colqhoun, you think I am Patricia.’
‘If not, what are you?’ ‘I am called Hypatia.’
‘I hope you’re up to your name.’ ‘Tu quoque.’
She was that quick and Hannibal turned the subject.
‘You must get very worried about your brother?’
‘I do, although he’s twenty-six and very able.
He says the two secrets of illegal work
Are ruthless discipline and split-second timing.
For example he may go to a hotel.
He arrives at half-past six. Another man
Comes simultaneously. They stand together
While they are booking in. Their suitcases
Are identical and each takes the other’s.
Not a word is spoken. There is no sign
Of recognition. But secret documents
Are silently and efficiently exchanged.
Mind, he’s blonder than I, and his German
Has a slight up-country twang. Many people
Think he is Swiss, though he carries a British passport.
He will not be needed for more than a few months.
The comrades are regrouping, reestablishing
International links and, perhaps before Christmas
The workers will rise up, and goodbye Hitler.’
‘And after that?’ ‘Socialism or communism.’
‘I’m puzzled by this plethora of -isms.
Just what is Fascism? Is it really new?
Black used to call it capitalism gone berserk.’
‘But I detect a mediaeval strand.
Vampires, Valkyries, Rhinemaidens
And other props hijacked from Richard Wagner.
What do you think?’ ‘I think something of both,’
And he told her about Clutterbrook’s mad party.
‘As you know, after war came revolution.
Revolution’s a social tidal wave.
At its highest it elevates human reason
And lifts the ark of science to Ararat.
“From now on, man, live by your sober senses.’
That’s what my father was trying to say to you.
But it is possible to get drunk on it.
When it retreats it carries the euphoria
Into the sea. We are left with the sodden familiar.
And so when Fritz the thank-god-solvent banker
Wraps his arms round his rescued savings chest,
He sees witches roosting on the cupolas
Of respectable financial institutions,
Has a canary fit if he spills salt
And darts his frightened acquisitive eyes
Into every shadow out of fear of – Jews.’
‘It is a matter of money?’ ‘Indeed it is,
And as wealth is easiest got by conquest,
The wealthy don’t do their own conquering, and
So comes the glorification of war,
In which murder is held to be no murder,
Women are trained to pup tomorrow’s corpses,
Young men – forgive me, is there anything sillier
Than young men? – prance on absurd parades
And, after listening to a few deft words,
Swear they will die for their bitterest enemies.
And I can tell you what it amounts to,
For I was present when they burned the books:
The systematisation of social decay,
Education in service of ignorance,
Law for the convenience of criminals,
And life lived for the state surrounded
By constant carking insecurity
And the myriad petty treacheries that go with it.
But Goethe and Heine both lived in that land.
The tide has sunk only better to return,
Of that I am convinced. I am a Jewess.
I wish the persecutor no more evil
Than just retribution.’ ‘That’s not Christian.’
‘But neither are the Christians very Christian.
You know that. And it has been our pride
Through endless centuries of suffering
Never to inflict injury on others.’
Hannibal felt edged towards a position
He was unwilling to accept. There might be,
And indeed he could testify there were,
Silly young men, but some young ladies
Could miaow as well as purr, and even hiss
If it came to that; fair play of course
To their experience of the world. ‘Listen,’
He said, ‘You talk of Jewish sentiments.
If I took a run into the remoter past
When Rome was a pup, and Joshua held the sun
Impaled on his spear-point over Gibeon,
And I think he did a job on the moon as well,
And had it, in defiance of astronomy,
Zenithed at Ajalon, while he got on
With the good work of butchery; now he
Credited the episode to God,
Like Cromwell at the siege of Drogheda.
Going further back, wasn’t the exodus
Really a conquest?’ Patti was displeased.
‘You can’t tax me with ancient history.’
‘I can if you quote history in your favour,
As you have done.’ She shifted ground. ‘I follow,’
She said, ‘a god greater than Jehovah.’
‘What god?’ ‘The god hidden in man.’ ‘Well hidden,
If what you have been telling me is true.’
Hannibal felt Patti was ‘mixing things’,
But she wasn’t infallible and that was to the good.
‘I think,’ he said, ‘we should return to the Germans.
You think they will revolt. But they may not,
As I have cause to know, if they’re entoiled
As they seem to be, in a collective crime.’
‘Meaning?’ ‘The persecution of the Jews.’
‘That I do fear. That is the thing could do it.
Einstein has not escaped a day too soon.
They raided his house when Hitler came to power.’
‘What for?’ ‘For communist game. The Nazis hate him,
First for being a Jew, second for being famous
While a Jew, third for his socialism
And backing Soviet Russia, finally
For talking pacifism with Sigmund Freud,
Contrary to their view of the nature of man.
Do you know it was really he discovered quanta?
Yet he still says he doesn’t believe in them.’
‘Patti,’ he said, ‘I leave that to Hypatia.
After all Hannibal was a simple soldier.’
‘Maybe, but he took elephants against Rome.’
Hannibal was neither simple nor a soldier,
He saw his error and instantly regretted
The self-disparagement he had fallen into
On the strength of one small tactical victory
In the war of courtship. He had gambited
For familiarity and not got it.
Hannibal the brain had been given away,
Hannibal man of action was nowhere,
What about Hannibal the high-bred bard,
Able to make words dance and tears flow?
Despite Andrew, pottery might have its uses.
C The Einstein meeting
They went into the hall and found their seats
Beside the Sonnenscheins and Septimus Bonner
Of the committee, an elderly hard-bitten
Gnarled union man, a trifle rough of tongue
But kindly of disposition, and a thinker
In his own right. He welcomed them and moved
To let the attractive youngsters sit together.
As they waited under a vast accoustic denture
For the meeting to begin, Sonnenschein’s wife,
A big German with a seemingly haughty stare
That melted unaccountably, passed chocolates.
Hannibal thought them more appropriate
To a theatre, but nevertheless
Pronounced them very delicious, and indeed
So they were, and very expensive too.
During the delay Patti sang Einstein’s praises.
Had he not written the preface to a new
German translation of Lucretius,
‘The man who first began to unmask time.
Today we talk of entropy – the secret
Of its irreversibly downward motion.’
Hannibal’s mind went back to Lauderdale.
‘Suppose,’ he said, ‘your balloon universe
Ran out of breath, stood still, then started to shrink.
Would time still seem to us to be moving forwards?’
‘I think so,’ she said. ‘Then you have unhooked it,
Set it free as an absolute after all.’
‘A philosopher, sir, if ever there was one.’
A pity Hypatia never read Kant.
At that point the meeting was called to order.
Rutherford took the chair. Hannibal assessed him.
A true practitioner of science, a gentleman
Soberly attired, mellifluously spoken –
In the manner of those who made an axiom
Of the immortality of patrician England –
Something imaginable, be it admitted,
In those warm autumn days of wasp-blown empire.
He introduced a Tory senator
From a family of midland millionaires,
Not strange to Downing Street. This born ruler,
With his dark clothes and choking collar
With its space for the mobile Adam’s apple,
Recalled the Pax Brittanica, and likened it
To the imperium of ancient Rome,
‘Maker of laws, leveller of far paths,
Founder of nations, unifier under God.’
(‘Yes,’ whispered Patti, ‘and collector of taxes.’)
He spoke of the Punic wars and warning Cato
Hammering the venal ears of senators
Till they must heed, and of the English Cato
Frozen from office by a ‘vile caucus’
Centred in a Berkshire country house.
(‘Whom does he mean?’ Hannibal asked Patti.
‘Possibly Winston Churchill and his cronies.
Einstein had dinner with him in July.
He thinks the man’s a war-monger.’) The orator
Piled trope on trope as he approached his climax.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, pray, permit me
To hope – did I say hope and ask permission? –
No. I do hope, and I have confidence
That should the weaklings and the compromisers
Fail in their craven plot and leave this empire
Naked before the swords of barbarism,
The children of the warriors who fought
At Mons under the wings of holy angels,
Will rally to the cause of king, country,
Civilisation and democracy
And attest their nationality in blood.’
A young man at the back climbed on a seat
And shouted, ‘Homes for heroes, you lying swine.
Get into khaki if you want a fight.’
Stewards hustled him out. Immediately
There were two audiences in the hall.
One declared ‘Good on you, kid; let those
With the homes be the heroes.’ The other,
Rigid in seats, feigned genteel unconcern,
But heard the speaker without listening.
To general relief the chairman called
Einstein, though he was billed to speak later.
He read his speech from two small folios,
Falteringly, for he had not good English,
Listed the savants that were sent packing
Or thought it wise to depart, and finally
Made his proposal: ‘Ladies and gentlemen,
I have been thinking of uprooted scholars,
Many with minds robust enough to ask
This universe, “What is it we are part of?”
They are dispersed like insects from a felled
And withering oak. I offer my solution.
Let us distribute them to light-houses,
Those gaunt pharatory edifices
That withstand nature’s fury and escape man’s,
And leave them there to think for the whole world
Free from irrelevant interruption.’
To the general consternation he then sat down.
‘Can he be serious?’ said a woman behind.
‘The impracticability of genius!’
Said her companion, ‘No use sending him
To buy a quarter of tea.’ The Sonnenscheins,
Bonner and Hannibal left for a public house,
And discussed the strange lapse of Pattie’s idol.
‘He’s not a man of action,’ said her father,
‘And it shows up even in his taste in music.
He’s all for Mozart, against whom I say nothing.
The turbulence and turmoil of Beethoven
He distrusts. The child of war and revolution
Injects too military a tendency for a pacifist’s comfort.
The thinking man wants quiet and comfort. Poetic man
Wants drama and excitment and glorifies war.’
Bonner had been thinking. ‘He could have been right, you know.’
‘What?’ Sonnenschein exclaimed. ‘Is it a proposition
To plant two thousand monoglot refugees
Among the coastguards of thirty nations?’
‘Would Pax Britannica do more for them?
He’s recognised the falsity of these people.
They wanted to use his name, but he cleverly
Witheld it by talking deliberate nonsense.
There’ll be nothing about this in the newspapers.’
‘By God,’ said Sonnenschein, ‘You might be right.
He’s leaving for the United States next week.
A pity too. We would have liked him at Oxford.’
‘From now on,’ said Bonner, ‘remember
We rely on the Left. This was a cheap charade.’
‘Hear! Hear!’ said Patti. Hannibal said, ‘Hear! Hear!’
The young interrupter Reuben Field came in,
Bruised from his contact with cylindrical man.
‘Hallo, Reuben,’ said Patti. Hannibal thought
‘I’ve competition from a man of action.
Hell-fire and double damnation! They’re in love.’
D The prostitutes
But he left them with spirits soaring.
This was his day. He leapt the escalator
At King’s Cross two steps a stride, and hummed
To himself again and again, ‘es müss sein,’
In the key of F from the last quartet.
But out of murky pilasters two whores
Emerged in dirty raincoats, dyed hair
And white drawn faces plastered with pink paint
That filled their wrinkles as muck fills a ditch.
They stood strategically in his way.
‘Excuse me, ladies,’ he said politely.
They didn’t move. ‘Tike yeh choice, pretty boy,’
One of them rasped, ‘We women woke togever
In the trevel tride. Cheap noight excussions
To sticky paradise, seven and six a trip.’
‘I’m sorry, ladies, I have a train to catch.’
‘Wot’s a trine to a fack?’ Seconds were ticking.
What should he do? Brush them aside or beat
A quick retreat and go in from York Way?
One of them seized his coat by the left sleeve.
The hand was grimy, the scent overpowering.
He put his right hand in his hip pocket,
Drew a half-crown and offered it the hand,
Which loosed his sleeve to close on it. He then
Darted swiftly between them and when past,
Furious at their ruse hissed back at them,
‘Piss off.’ ‘Ooh ah you taking to?
Thet’s a noice w’y to toke to a facking lidy.
We’re honest trideswomen. Got your diddy up that.
We deal in ‘ome-grown products like the govvament
Tells us we should. But wot the shite are you?
Either a cock-virgin or a Soho bum-boy
Agowing ‘ome to wash the grease out of your arse.’
Screeching abuse they followed him into the brightness,
Then saw two policemen and started back.
The younger officer said to Hannibal,
‘It was foolish of you to give that woman money.
We’d have done nothing if you’d knocked her out.’
‘Hm,’ said the other, ‘He’d have to do it smartly.
Pentonville Peg usually sports a razor,
Says it’s the only way to be sure of her price.
This gentleman used his loaf.’ ‘Let’s pull ’em in,
Charge them with begging and soliciting
And carrying offensive weapons, if we find
Anything on them.’ ‘You’ll find something on ’em!
Indeed you’ll find more than you bargain for.
And the boys at the station won’t thank you for it.
The other hag is crawling. Shandy, they call her.
Not the full pint of beer. Peggy-girl keeps her,
Though I hope for her sake not in the same room.
Occasionally she wheedles a boozy hand-out
From a sloshed wino. He gets his money’s worth
Let me tell you. He never loses nothing.
We’d have to dress in oil-skins for that job.
Yes, I’ve faced knives. But no thank you to creepers.
Good night, sir,’ he said to Hannibal, ‘There’s your train.
I congratulate you on your good sense.
We don’t want any trouble at King’s Cross.’
It was around this time Lord Trenchard
Recruited graduates, and policemen,
Long public servants, trained to be public masters.
E Journey home
At Fenchester he found a telegram.
‘Uncle Tom dead. Funeral Tuesday three.
Wire place and time arrival. I will meet.’
Such news on such a day might make it hard
For a man to sleep. Hannibal contrived it
In a few minutes in the manner of youth.
Next day he bought a white shirt and black tie,
And took his soberest jacket, used for London,
To a ‘repairs while you wait’ seamstress
To have a black diamond sewn upon a sleeve.
Impelled by the irony of chance
She hit on the area made memorable
By Shandy’s grubby fingers. He wired his father
‘Meet me at York Road,’ and hit the rails
For Bletchley and Stranraer. As the two-engined train
Struggled up Shap, Hannibal assimilated
His journey’s purpose. He was going to watch
A coffin being lowered into a pit.
In it a thing that had lost its small importance,
In essence a brain that had just gone out,
One of history’s vortices uncoiled,
While the stream flowed on as ever unimpeded.
He wasn’t used to funerals and disliked them.
He looked up at the mountains as dusk fell.
Were those grey fixtures boulders or grazing ewes
Left late on pasture because of the good year?
They looked like tombstones set on fraginous fells.
It crossed his mind that the whole living world
Was one vast grave mechanically entombing
Successive generations of saprophytes,
With Patti’s entropy as unpaid sexton.
Suddenly the flock stampeded.
So they were sheep. Aha! And there was a fox.
‘Omen or lesson?’ he asked and went to the bar.
On the ferry he encountered Father John
And two young Christian Brothers
With a party of educational pilgrims
Back from Iona. Two fifteen-year olds
With fine earnest faces sat with the priest.
Father John introduced them, Cunningham
And Rogers. Hannibal smiled and offered
His hand. Cunningham blushed and ignored it.
Rogers took it in a loose gingerly manner.
‘Tak it properly. His name’s nae Campbell,’
Said one of the brothers, a Glasgow man from Ross.
Father John said, ‘They mean no disrespect
There were bad days when they were chisellers
And they’ve never met a Protestant before.’
‘This is the time to mind your catechism,’
Said the brother, ‘The whole world is my neighbour,
Remember that, and this one doesn’t hate us,
Even if he may differ from us in religion.’
Thus reprimanded both boys shook hands,
Having been reassured it was in order.
But Hannibal laughed. His depression had lifted
Once life intruded into the affairs of death.
‘I see I enjoy that species of respect
Due to an epidemic or thunderstorm!’
Cunningham was silent but Rogers laughed.
F Uncle Tom’s Will
‘A sad day for all,’ declared his father.
‘What did he die of?’ ‘Cancer of the throat,
Brought on by years and years of hot curry,
And I doubt if any of us will get a penny,
Though, to be sure, I’m told he died in the Lord,
Despite a certain unbelieving lady.
I hope she doesn’t have to leave the farm.
The will is being brought by a solicitor.
We never knew he had one. A dark horse
Was that same Uncle Tom. He knew he was going,
And, would you believe it, got up out of bed
And swayed half-naked to the telephone,
And rang several people, including the minister
To whom he said something like nunc dimittis,
And told the aunt the solicitor’s name.
We’ll hold the gathering at our house.
Your mother has potato cakes made
And I’ve a few bottles of Bush Mills.
MacParland will be there, and possibly Emer.
She’s now a psychic nurse in Paddington.’
‘A psychic nurse?’ ‘Well, something of that sort.’
‘My mother used to call her a beggar girl.’
‘They’re not beggars now. Her father bought a tractor,
On the never-never and now does contract ploughing
And carting produce for the larger farmers.
He’s joined the ranks of people that has “riz”
A rung and a half maybe on the ladder of life.’
‘So his daughter can come to the house?’ ‘Certainly.’
‘Do you seriously subscribe to all this humbug?’
The colporteur was surprised. Even heaven
Must have degree and order in its mansions.
‘What humbug, Hannibal?’ ‘I call it snobbery.’
‘Perhaps it is, but it’s the way of the world.
You couldn’t invite them when they had nothing,
For they wouldn’t feel able to ask you back.
Snobbery’s not the total evil you think.
There’s an element of delicacy in it.
It prevents you from treading on other people’s corns.
Today they’ve a new house with a nice garden,
Buy in their vegetables and grow flowers.
Three or four of the family are working.
And Mrs MacParland struts in a fur coat.’
The minister worked hard for the dead man’s credit.
Employing the best resources of rhetoric,
He gave him charity, probity and a faith
A long illness might have attenuated
Had his mind pottered among wordly things;
But it had dwelt on eternal verities,
The only nutrient for a soul enchained
In mulish or rebellious mortal clay.
Hannibal heard the great-aunt’s whispered snigger,
‘Balfour, my son, the lies, the grandiose lies
They tell at funerals. Upon my holy warrant
On his dying day he asked for curried prawns
When he couldn’t get a spoon of jelly down him.
Are curried prawns eternal verities?’
‘I suppose,’ said the colporteur with a sigh,
‘They are as eternal as anything else.
‘That’s about it.’ Hannibal was amused,
Not for the first time, at the lurking bug
Of scepticism in the warm pus of faith.
It seemed to be part of a general rule
That neither resolute faith nor unbelief
Were ever acted upon. Faith would exact
Its personal reckoning, for the Lord would judge.
By contrast doubting reason,
Convinced of its inevitable extinction,
Plied out time like a treasured length of rope
And asks each day to answer for itself.
Instead there was agreement to live in a fog.
They went to the graveside, the minister standing
Head on one side like a doting cormorant,
The picture of sweet condolence and compassion
As the grief-stricken host filed out to do its duty.
The organist came out apologising.
He had played Mendelssohn’s wedding march
Instead of the dirge from Saul. The score was left
On the music rack after this morning’s wedding.
He didn’t like to stop and start again
But managed to switch the thing into slow motion
By means of appoggiaturas and a pedalpoint,
With a little sour chromaticism thrown in.
Balfour paid him. Nobody seemed to have noticed.
There was music, and music destroys thought.
There was perfunctoriness about the ceremony.
Four men with ropes were rearing for the nod.
As the coffin plunged, they cleverly retrieved
Their ropes for the next performance. Balfour
Had to be reminded of the ritual pebbles
With which close kindred pepper the box that holds
The beloved remains, and all repaired to the house.
Hannibal wondered was the dead man lonely.
He couldn’t be and yet he felt he was.
Life had deserted him and with life the living.
For some reason the lawyer was delayed.
Whiskey and its accompaniments were issued.
First came the reminiscences of Tom.
He got into some scrape and took the shilling
And spent a martial youth in India.
There every regiment had a full harem
Of Dravidian girls imperial warriors
Could use. They lived like fighting cocks. And there
He got the taste for curry that had killed him.
‘Mother India’s revenge,’ thought Hannibal.
‘Tell Sonnenschein about causality!’
‘Of course you couldn’t call the man a glutton,
But he liked his oats.’ ‘Aye, ‘Twas a pity
His throat went. He wouldn’t have missed his legs.’
And someone said he wasted two lives, one
As a soldier, another as a man.
But the present slyly dispossessed the past.
‘How did the music strike you, Mrs Colqhoun,
Were you satisfied?’ ‘Indeed I was not.
Dr Malone is a very clever musician
But I’m told he’s somewhat conscious of the bottle.
Look at the way he jazzed up the Dead March.’
‘He’d not the same man since he buried his daughter.’
‘Did Dr Gorman ever say what ailed her?’
‘Never, and I gravely doubt he knew.’
‘He’s built himself a nice little surgery.’
‘Ach! He’d know that, and how to make us pay for it.’
Mrs Magee, who ran the harvest festival,
Asked why in this great summer of the century,
Even beyond the fabulous nineteen eleven,
All her hydrangeas were a pallid pink.
‘Get the old fellow to pump ship on them,’
Advised MacParland, ‘That’ll blue them up.’
There was much laughter and mock protest.
‘You’re out of order, Mr MacParland.’
‘Indeed I am, and if I wasn’t, by heaven,
I’d do it for him.’ ‘I hope,’ said Mr Magee
‘They’ll have a wee laugh at my funeral.
I wouldn’t want to make people miserable
Over something they could do nothing about.
Remember that woeful scrunt they called Miser Jim?
He buried his own mother with weak tea,
So weak it couldn’t struggle out of the pot
And still he went on pouring water on it
And stood there stirring, shaking and tapping the spout,
With a face as long as a spade and saying nothing,
Though everybody knew he starved her to death.’
‘He had his points. He killed a bailiff’s dog.
But you’re right about him. He never laughed in his life.’
The telephone rang. It was the solicitor,
Marooned among the eskers, his big end gone.
The estate amounted to six hundred pounds
And a workable farm, not a great fortune,
But many a young fellow would be glad of it
At the start of his career. The sole legatee
Was named Colqhoun. ‘That’s myself,’ said Balfour,
Whereupon the line mysteriously cut off.
‘He’s left it to me,’ the colporteur told his wife,
‘Not much but enough to take me to Canada
To read my sermons live from the pulpit,
For I’m sure that’s what they’d all want me to do.
I’ll cover my costs, God willing, possibly
Make a bouncing profit.’ The telephone rang again.
Balfour came back crestfallen. ‘It’s Hannibal.
The will was made the day after he was born,
To cheat the lot of us. I don’t begrudge him.
I think I’ll go to Canada just the same.
I’ll sell those bakery shares I bought last year.’
‘I wish,’ said his wife, ‘the Lord had given you prudence
To moderate your daft enthusiams.
You think you are an evangelist. In fact
You are an actor. Gnosce teipsum!
The first prerequisite of a clever man
Is to know his limitations. Nobody
Who makes money from impersonation
Should walk publicly without his mask.’
The colporteur gave in. Over the years
Slowly this woman had been gaining on him
Because of the permanent conflict in his will.
G MacParland’s story
Hannibal walked home with MacParland,
Who seemed to be in need of a steadying hand,
But sobered marvellously in the soft night air
In which the moon lit lanterns of chilly mist.
‘You’ll leave the old woman where she is?,’ he said.
‘Of course.’ ‘Supposing anything happened her,
Which God forbid, would you ever think of selling?’
‘I suppose I would, but am I a free agent?
Just yet at any rate.’ ‘You come of age . . .?’
‘In March.’ ‘That’s time enough. The lawyer
Will show no impious haste. I know them.
There’ll be no payment before next summer.
Now understand I’m only saying suppose,
Suppose you’re selling, well there’s a man here
Who wouldn’t mind buying. In the meantime
I’ll take a wee peek at the place if you like
And see you’re getting the best price for your grass.
I don’t think old Balfour’s very keen on farming.’
‘By all means do, but for the present, no changes
All this has been a great surprise to me.’
Emer had not come out, but a head-ache had lifted.
Her father repeated his sallies and bon mots,
Especially on the management of hydrangeas.
‘If I were a doctor,’ said Emer playfully,
‘I would diagnose acute xerostomia –
That’s an abnormal dryness of the mouth –
To which the male sex is extremely prone.
Its treatment is not free from side effects,
Such as – a stretched belly and loosened tongue.’
MacParland answered by getting out glasses,
Calling his wife and pouring the elixir.
Emer said she was sorry for Tom Colqhoun,
But he lived out his wish. His monomania
Differed nothing from that of Miser Jim.
One starved, the other stuffed himself to death –
Two forms of a revulsion from the world,
For that’s what it was, different only in measure
From the solipsisms of pathology.
She had a patient who sat naked, hours
On end on his hunkers. Another tapped steps
And went downstairs and walked up again
If he thought he had left one out. Such people
Might need protection. Voluntarily blind,
They disregarded the dangers of not seeing
And that was where nurses came in. ‘And yet,’
She said with a tolerant smile, ‘I often wonder
Is some angelic nurse set in high heaven
Invigilating the madnesses of the sane?’
Hannibal told her about Dr Black
And his talk of an osteopathy of the mind.
‘Perhaps you mean a physiotherapy.
From what you tell me that seems probable,
Though the principle’s the same. Maladroit movements
Jam the joints. Reverse them by counter-movements
And function is restored. But to do that
For the mind would mean manipulating
The external world and that’s impossible.’
Hannibal had half a mind to suggest
That that was the raison d’etre of socialism,
But decided to keep his two planets apart
And was glad when MacParland intervened.
‘Tom was an old codger in his latter days
But you’d have to remember him when he was young.
He lent me twenty pounds to go to Liverpool
As witness in a most peculiar case.
I’ll tell you about it. Did you ever hear
Of barratry? No? Nor of champerty?
No? Nor bottomry on the high seas?
Of course you didn’t. I’ll tell you how I did.
I mind the night well, a damned swelterer
If ever there was one. Just before dawn,
And it comes suddenly on tropical seas,
The mate comes up to me with a gun in his hand.
He didn’t threaten me with it, but I saw it.
“Get a boat lowered,” he says, “We’re quitting.”
“Why in God’s name?” “Fire down below”
“Where’s the skipper?” “In a shark’s belly,” he says,
“For all I know.” ‘Twas then I smelt burning,
Argued no more and got a gig in the water.
“What about the lascars?” “D’you see this gun?”
He says, “That saved us. The niggers started the fire
And they’ve done for the captain. Let ’em all go down.
Here’s a hundred nicker to put in your pocket.
Ask no more questions. We’ll pull away.”
I looked at the ship. I looked at the gun.
I looked at the packet he had in his hand.
And I took it. Mind, I got rid of it
A day or two later. One or two others
Weren’t so fly, and when they were searched
Had a bit of rough explaining to do
And spent a couple of evenings locked in choker.
However the mate stood firm on his story.
The lascars had tipped the captain overboard,
Looted the rum and set the galley ablaze,
Not in intention but through idiocy.
I’m sure the Australian customs had suspicions,
But there was no cargo, no manifest.
For their purposes we were castaways
And the owners cabled money to bring us home.
Now here’s a thing you might find hard to believe,
That vessel was insured for a million pounds.
The insurers wouldn’t pay, and put the owners
In court for bottomry – that’s sinking the ship;
Barratry – that’s fiddling; and champerty –
That’s taking shares in a corrupt bargain.
I tell you, I was on the bone of my arse,
Couldn’t get a ship, couldn’t get anything,
When I was summoned as a witness.
It was Tom who lent me the few bob.
How did it end? They fixed it up some way.
It was a quarrel between businessmen.
They didn’t bother about the likes of us,
Least of all the unfortunates who were scuttled
And ended up sharkshite at the bottom of the sea,
Or burnt, eaten or God knows what.
We got out because we had white skins
And I tell you, mighty glad I was to have one.’
On Wednesday Hannibal wrestled with his poem.
First he strummed out a Kipling-style bolero,
Stamping his feet to capture the right rhythm.
(There was some fellow who used to do this.)
But what was the use of sending that to Patti?
She’d call it schoolboy. No, he must compose
Numbers but weighty with inspired conviction
Like Shelley’s skylark or Blake’s rose,
But nothing came. At length he had recourse
To sheer classicizing – pastoral pasteboard –
A farmyard sonnet in the olden style,
But since it has survived let it be printed,
For scholars to count its tonics and stops
And find out whence its harmony was stolen:
‘Rejoice, my heart, for fair September comes,
Prodigal of horn, warm, golden, rich, serene.
The soft air throbs with roar of harvest drums.
Her peaceable management is wholly given
To ways of plenty. The Earth has had “evergreen”
Scribed on its lintel. Every live thing lost,
Each leaf unhooked, each dripping flower down-driven,
Dies confident high sap can meet the cost
And so replenish – Dance to Eve’s star and ask
Time’s curse to lift for one night’s nuptial hymns;
Drink the young wine in jovial holiday dusk;
And let youth speak its lofty grandiose dreams
Of fulfilled hope our mature age should be.
September comes. My heart, rejoice with me.’
I London calling
Hannibal wrote a fair copy, but held it
Till he had tracked down Sonnenschein and offered
His services to the refugee committee
As Germanophone factotum, making it clear
He was impatient to be smokeward bound.
‘I’ll tell Seppy,’ said the sage, ‘He’ll be pleased.
And so will Patti. He’ll write to you within days.’
That settled satisfactorily,
He approached Patti in the part of a townsman
Set faineant in the bucolic void,
Adding, as if by way of afterthought,
‘A little piece of work I filled my time with.’
Bonner wrote at once offering five pounds a week,
Good money for a young politico,
Guaranteed for a year at least, after which,
He could resume his studies if he wished,
Or might find consequent opportunities.
Hannibal accepted. But Patti’s answer
Dangled on the days, and Hannibal came
Near to deploring the stance he had taken.
‘It’s daft to do things just to show you can.
Exercise your talents when they’re called for.’
What if she envisaged him ‘en troubadour’,
Rutting for the ultimate reward?
All this arose because he couldn’t wait.
At length her letter came with an Oxford postmark.
She had been one of the small select party
Who waved to Einstein from a Southampton quay.
The rest was Reuben, nicked and fined a fiver
For selling The Dying Peace at Marble Arch,
Reuben facing a further prosecution
Because in a leaflet issued by Student Front
(Everything was a Front in those days)
He had called the Clerkenwell beak a ‘Fascist stooge’,
Which he was, but you could go to jail if you said so.
On a separate sheet she scribbled a postscript,
‘Thanks for the poetry. It is quite nice,
Though, to be frank, I prefer Reuben’s.
Yours is cosy, like a hot-water bottle
In a January bed. But it has no message.
It hasn’t a ha’porth of social significance,
So what is it for? Also you got the month wrong.
Fair September, and it was a good month,
Is weeks a-mouldering. The pallid moonface
Of its offspring is already grizzled with stubble
And any day now
It could go into a terminal decline.’
She enclosed several pieces by Reuben,
Of which these stanzas can serve as an example:
‘Class-conscious workers, ACT!
Unleash the cataract,
The revolutionary impact
Of the days of the blood-stained moon.
After the arrests and dawn raids,
After the rifles and barricades,
After the slaughter of comrades,
Three cheers for the commune.
Youth, never count the cost.
Life is given to be lost.
Let hell not boast
You stored it like a miser.
Get into the fight,
Assert your revolutionary right
To share in victory now in sight.
That were the wiser.
We go for workers’ power
To last for ever and ever.
Why should we cower
At bourgeois disapproval?
No. Let them rant and rage,
Wreck, ruin and rampage.
They’re finished. The war we wage
Spells their removal.
But you, my holy one,
Sigh, we are never alone,
Nor till the battle’s won
But that some smiling night
When time and chance are right,
Free hearts may twice unite
In double victory.’
‘Pooh,’ said Black, ‘You could summarise the whole thing
In the plain words “Fuck for workers’ victory!”‘
Hannibal was not well pleased.
She took his sonnet as addressed to her.
He wasn’t sure whether it was or wasn’t.
Twice he had apostrophised his heart
And presented her with a double entendre,
So she told the troubadour to ‘troube decamp.’
Well, seemingly she must be going to Oxford,
Away from him, away from Reuben too.
He decided to concentrate on practical things
And it crossed his mind, but only for a second
That he wanted Patti to betray her man
And really ought to be ashamed of himself,
For in the midst of Reuben’s Marseillaise
Strands of poetry jostled with the jargon.
He had nothing to say to Black’s tyrannical hormones,
Or to the chances lying in space and time.
‘I’m not a one for Jews,’ declared his mother,
‘Although I will admit I never met one.’
‘Like the two boys who never met a Prod.’
‘Oh. I’m sure they’re human like the rest of us.
They wrote the Bible.’ ‘Yes, when you think of it.’
‘And the name Jesus is really Joshua.’
‘Ach!’ said his mother, ‘That would be stretching it,
Like saying Christmas is Christ’s Mass,
Or the swear-word “bloody” is really “by our Lady”.’
‘Well,’ said Hannibal, ‘I’ve something else on my mind.
I’d like to do what I am going to do
With your approval, but I’m going to do it,
With or without.’ ‘Ach, Hannibal,’ said his father
‘You’re the most hoity-toity, pernickety young fellow.
Looking after refugees is the Lord’s work.
But labours of mercy are seldom overpaid.
You think you have inherited a fortune,
But, between you and me, it’s not much.
‘Tis a great thing to know you’re doing right
But you can right others and wrong yourself.
I only want you to know what you are doing.’
‘I’ll take that as a qualified approval,
Accompanied maybe by minor qualms.
Fully appreciated. I go on Monday.’
* * *